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Smartphones aren't a smart choice in middle school

Not too long ago, one of my daughter's middle-school teachers told me that my daughter was spending a lot of time on ...

Posted: Dec. 24, 2017 12:59 PM
Updated: Dec. 24, 2017 12:59 PM

Not too long ago, one of my daughter's middle-school teachers told me that my daughter was spending a lot of time on her phone during class. As a mother, this was concerning. But I was not surprised. I am a physician and filmmaker who dedicated my time to make the documentary "Screenagers: Growing up on in the Digital Age" precisely because I know how strongly tech tempts youth and how confused we are as a society about what to do about that.

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This month, the Screenagers team and I completed a survey of people who had seen or were interested in the topic of our film to gather data on middle-school phone rules. More than 1,200 middle school parents in the United States responded. While parents who are on our email list and who responded to the survey may be more concerned about their kid's cell phone use than the general parent population, two particularly striking findings emerged:

- 55% of the parents who responded to our survey said their children's middle schools now allow cell phone use, with public schools being more likely than private schools to allow it.

- More than 80% of parents do not want their kids to use cell phones during school.

Recently, France announced it is banning cell phones in school for all students age 15 and under, starting next fall. From our survey, it seems that many US parents may be in favor of similar restrictions in the classroom. And it's not only parents who support "away for the day" policies, which require students to leave their phones out of reach -- so does science.

We know that the frontal lobe -- the part of the brain responsible for impulse control -- is not fully developed in middle school-aged children. When we expect kids to learn how to handle phone use in places like classrooms, we are setting many of them up for failure.

According to the students, teachers and administrators whom we spoke to for the film, many students are getting in trouble in schools across the country for being on their phones in class when they're not supposed to.

Despite searching, I have never seen a study on the impact of access to phones on middle schoolers' academic achievement, but a 2012 study, published by the Communication Education journal, on college students is discouraging. Students who interact with their cell phones in class perform worse on tests -- often a full letter grade or more. In fact, just having phones within reach, can cause academic performance to decline, whether they're used or not.

In a 2017 study, participants completely turned off and silenced their phones. While they performed memory tasks, some were allowed to keep their phone, and some were told to put it in the other room. Those who had the phone with them did significantly worse. The mere presence of smartphones reduces available cognitive capacity. In other words, the attention and energy it takes to not check a phone seems to cause "brain drain."

Visit any middle school where cell phones are allowed at lunch or break and you will see heads down everywhere you look. Kids I've met through Screenagers tell me how they retreat into their phones to avoid feeling anxious while socializing.

While cyberbullying gets a lot of attention, too many students face micro emotional hits when they are left out of group chats or see photos to which they compare themselves and feel inferior. When this happens during the school day, it can make it very difficult to focus on school work.

A 2016 study published by the Pediatrics journal found that the increasing rates of depression in adolescents, especially in girls, correlated with the use of mobile phones and texting apps. Meanwhile, youth who spent more time on social media -- often accessed through smartphones -- have a greater likelihood of being unhappy.

Importantly, it's been found that face-to-face time with friends strongly correlates with less depressive feelings. Creating environments where kids disconnect from their devices and interact in person would be a smart public health move.

Schools that changed their policy from allowing cell phones to prohibiting them saw student test scores improve by 6.41%, according to a 2015 study from the United Kingdom.

In the US, administrators of schools that have adopted "away for the day" policies have reported improvements in students' emotional well-being too. Matthew Burnham, a middle school principal in El Cerrito, California, told us, "When we took the phones away, we had very little pushback from the kids, and all of those distractions and problems went away."

That's a marked improvement.

So why do some middle schools allow students to have phones all day? One reason could be that they don't want the burden of enforcing the policy. But the reality is that when solid systems are in place middle schools should not be overburdened.

Schools could also believe that parents want to be able to contact their children all day. But our data shows this is not the case. When kids and parents don't rely on constant communication, they instead must plan for the day ahead of time, and this can help kids to develop valuable executive-functioning skills.

It is time we follow France's lead and do what is best for our middle school students today. That means require all middle school students to put their phones "away for the day."

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