Cell Phones at School: The Debate of Legitimacy

'cell phones prohibited' sign

On at least one school issue, many parents find themselves agreeing with their children rather than their teachers: that is the permissible use of cell phones at school. Many parents and students vigorously support the legitimacy of allowing cell phones in the classroom, but most teachers still oppose the practice. The truth is that cell phones, with all the technology associated, have become a pervasive element in every aspect of American culture, and it’s an issue schools must address.

Proponents on both sides of the issue advance compelling arguments.

The Advantages

  • School safety—Many parents adamantly defend cell phones at school for safety purposes. They argue that in the case of an emergency, they want immediate access to their children. In the case of a widespread emergency, students could contact their parents directly and keep school phone lines open for other communications.
  • Scheduling—Parents also want to be able to communicate directly to their children about schedules—such as pick-up times or after school scheduling changes—without going through the school office. And to be fair, school office staff agree that using cell phones in this way would free up school phone lines as well as staff time.
  • Scholarship—Some teachers argue that new cell phone technology makes it a valuable learning tool. Many cell phones are, in reality, handheld computers that could enhance, or even replace, classroom technology that is very expensive for schools on a tight budget to provide. Rather than viewing it as a detriment or distraction, these proponents see the cell phone as a real world tool that students should learn to embrace and use constructively—for everything from note taking to classroom research.
  • Student responsibility—Some teachers and administrators see the cell phone as yet one more opportunity to teach discernment and responsible behavior. Recognizing that the technology itself is not the problem, these defenders want to teach students how, when, and where the cell phone is appropriate.

The Disadvantages

  • Distraction—Those who oppose cell phones in the classroom cite the reality that cell phones distract students from their studies. Today’s cell phones not only offer the ubiquitous texting capability that students love, but also access to internet and video games that is a problem when students have the phones available in the classroom.
  • Dishonesty—The same technology that makes cell phones distracting also makes cheating much easier for students. They can take pictures of tests, text questions and answers, or even access notes and textbooks through their cell phones. Cell phones are so small these days, and students are so adept at using them surreptitiously that detecting their use is increasingly difficult.
  • Disrespect—The issues of cyber-bullying, sexting, and other forms of serious misconduct are increasingly common and easier to conceal with cell phone technology. Cell phones in the hands of problem students just make the problems harder to discern and harder to handle. Some argue that the teen angst common in that age group is exacerbated with cell phone use:  everything from gossip to sexuality becomes a bigger issue when cell phones are involved.

The Solutions

  • Prohibition—Some schools ban cell phone use altogether from the classroom. From the moment students enter the building until they leave, cell phones are out of sight and on silence. Some schools do not allow cell phones on school property at all. Some require teachers to collect cell phones when students enter the classroom and return them when they leave.
  • Published Policy—Some schools allow limited use of cell phones and, therefore, post specific guidelines for appropriate classroom use. Teachers and administrators clearly define these policies at the beginning of the school year and provide specific consequences for violation of the published policies. Clearly parents must also know these policies and support administrative punishments that should be substantial enough to make a difference.
  • Permitted for Educational Purposes—Some schools embrace cell phone technology and encourage its professional use. Teachers may even work the use of cell phones into their lesson plans. Still, guidelines are necessary to control acceptable use: keep the phone on silence, put on the desk in view of the teacher, and use only with permission.

It seems clear that cell phone technology is here to stay. Admittedly, keeping up with the changes is not easy. But, just as schools have adapted to technological changes in the past—calculators, spell check, internet—they will learn to cope with the new technology of today.

 by Dr. Rhonda Galloway. Updated October 21, 2015.

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