Banning Smartphones at Schools: Research Points to Higher Test Scores, Less Anxiety, More Exercise

Teachers in the U.K. will soon be prohibiting mobile phone use during the school day. Experts suggest the U.S. should consider doing the same.

Eamonn Fitzmaurice/The 74

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The international debate over technology and youth was jolted last week by a surprising announcement: Schools in the United Kingdom will soon ban the use of cell phones

Issued by the U.K.’s secretary of state for education, the new guidance builds on controls already in place in many schools across the country, most of which take explicit aim at both online bullying and student inattention during lessons. But it may have the further effect of encouraging advocates, both at home and abroad, to pursue further-reaching policies limiting children’s access to tech and social media. 

Parents, teachers, and education leaders across the United States have entertained similar proposals in recent years as devices have increasingly become a fixture in students’ daily lives. The near-ubiquity of electronics in American homes (a 2021 study from the nonprofit Common Sense Media showed that 43 percent of children aged 8–12 personally owned a smartphone), as well as their potential links to worsening mental health for young people, moved U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy to release an advisory warning against excessive social media use. 

Still, it is doubtful whether similar prohibitions can be attempted in the U.S. Unlike in most other Western countries, K–12 education in America is administered at the state and local level, leaving decisions about school management and culture mostly up to district boards. In addition, fears of school shootings and other on-site emergencies mean that some parents want to remain in contact with their kids at all times — even as most research shows that the presence of phones in classrooms tends to harm academic achievement. Among older students, the removal of cell phones during courses is correlated with lower anxiety and higher levels of course understanding, while adolescents engage in more physical play when phones are barred from recess.

Doug Lemov is a well-known educator and expert on classroom practice whose book Teach Like a Champion has become an international bestseller and a highly influential text among both novice and veteran teachers. He has also come out strongly against the use of phones in school, arguing that they meaningfully hamper instruction and prevent children from forming real-world relationships. 

Doug Lemov

Bans such as the one proposed in the United Kingdom might be difficult to enforce, Lemov acknowledged, given kids’ attachment to their devices. But clever methods of evasion are no reason not to seriously contemplate restrictions on phones in schools, he said. 

“If a kid feels like he has to sneak off to the bathroom and hide in the stall to use his cell phone, it’s still a win. Because it means that in 99 percent of the places in the building, people are walking around without their cell phones out, they are concentrating in class, and they’re having fully present relationships with one another.”

Effects on academics, exercise

The United Kingdom isn’t the first country to impose restrictions on phones in school. According to a UNESCO report released this summer on education systems in roughly 200 countries, about one-quarter have enacted comparable rules. But some of the most compelling research on the effects of cell phone bans comes from England.

Many teachers already confiscate cell phones during classes. New guidance in the U.K. will push more schools to ban them throughout the school day. (Getty Images)

In a study published in 2016, academics Louis-Phillipe Beland and Richard Murphy found that across the large English cities of Birmingham, Leicester, London, and Manchester, dozens of high schools that instituted bans on mobile phones saw significant improvement in scores on high-stakes tests. The increase was especially large for the lowest-performing pupils, who saw a jump in scores more than twice as large as the average student. 

Overall, the authors argued, the greater effects on these students of banning mobile phones — roughly equivalent to adding an hour to each school week — suggested that their higher-achieving classmates were better able to ignore distractions and focus on their work. The lure of texts and apps, therefore, might be expected to increase achievement gaps over time. 

Play and exercise are also linked to the use of electronics. A Danish study published in 2021 showed that a four-week ban on phones during recess significantly increased both the frequency and intensity of physical activity of children aged 10–14. And the consequences of a lack of movement can be strongly negative: In a study of nearly 25,000 U.S. teenagers, about 20 percent used screened devices (smartphones, tablets, or video games) more than five hours per day; that group was 43 percent more likely to be obese than participants who experienced less screen time.

While comparatively few studies have been conducted on the impact of information technology on K–12 learning, some have focused on its presence in university settings. One paper, published in 2014, studied cell phone use and texting in a large sample of college students, ultimately finding that they were associated with relatively lower grades and higher levels of self-reported anxiety. Relatedly, subjects who texted and used their phones less experienced higher “satisfaction with life.”

Jonathan Haidt

Far beyond its measured influence over grades or test scores, huge public concern has increasingly been directed at the effects of phone and internet use on adolescent mental health. Psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge have pointed to the recent explosion of screen time (generally pegged to the widespread adoption of home internet access and the emergence of smartphones) as a key culprit in rising rates of youth depression and anxiety.

The chorus of critics gained a powerful new voice in May, when Murthy issued his cautionary guidance on the use of social media. While stopping far short of recommending a blanket ban on youth access to apps like Instagram and Snapchat, the document struck a distinctly foreboding note.

“The current body of evidence indicates that while social media may have benefits for some children and adolescents, there are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents,” the surgeon general wrote.

Whether the advisory will exert any influence on local authorities — and whether it is widely interpreted as a warning about phones as well as social media — is difficult to tell. Districts attempted to curb the use of phones in school throughout the 2000s through a variety of means, most unsuccessful: New York City implemented a full-on ban in 2005 under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, only for it to be reversed a decade later by his successor, Bill de Blasio. In Spokane, Washington, one high school even used a signal jammer to keep students from texting during class (the experiment was quickly abandoned when its legality was called into question). 

Some jurisdictions have taken a fresh look at restrictions over the past few years, however. This spring, Massachusetts’s state board weighed the idea of providing grants to districts that tightened their policies.

‘Bans do not stop bullying’

Good reason exists to doubt the efficacy of strict prohibitions. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, during the 2019–20 school year, 77 percent of public schools said they disallowed the non-academic use of phones during school hours. But a data analysis released earlier this year revealed that 97 percent of children aged 11–17 used their phones during the school day, suggesting that the restrictions were not widely observed. 

Those figures were a stark reflection of the pre-COVID penetration of cell phones into school spaces. But students and families became even more accustomed to relying on technology during the pandemic, when instruction shifted online for months at a time. School districts loaned out thousands of devices and rushed to bring internet connectivity to students who lived in remote areas so that their learning would not be interrupted.

By most indicators, the migration online led to significant learning losses. But students also reported that during the worst stretches of isolation, social media helped them stay in touch with their friends and teachers — in cyberspace, if not real life. Many are reluctant to let go of their phones even with the return to in-person learning. 

American parents, too, have come to appreciate the convenience of having their children accessible during the school day. Many find it reassuring to be able to stay connected in the event of extreme events, including mass shootings, that have seized national attention in recent years. (Notably, security experts are more ambivalent on the benefits of phones during emergencies, with some arguing that trapped students would be better off directing their attention solely at teachers and administrators.)

Liz Kolb

Liz Kolb, a clinical professor of education technologies at the University of Michigan, said that while cell phones represent an undeniable source of distraction in academic settings, barring them from schools could also curtail opportunities to role model their constructive use. 

“Bans do not stop bullying, harrassment, FOMO [fear of missing out], feelings of depression or suicide, or accessing harmful content,” Kolb added in an email. “So schools that ban cell phones need to be explicit about still addressing these issues, even if they are not seeing phones every day.”

Lemov said that while some pushback from students was to be expected, most would likely change their minds in response to academic and social environments improved from the lack of phones. And while strict bans might be particularly challenging to implement, schools could also turn to solutions like Yondr pouches, which allow schools to collect and seal away phones during the day, but selectively offer students access to them if necessary. 

Companies like Yondr market lockable pouches that schools can use to selectively restrict phone access. (Getty Images)

Lemov, who said his own daughter’s school district used Yondr pouches, said they might help assuage parents’ worries about safety. Looking past methods of restriction, he encouraged schools to go further by proactively building a more engaging social and educational space; seductive objects should not only be removed, but replaced with opportunities for kids to learn, interact, and have fun, he argued.

“We have to eliminate an engine of distraction and disconnection, but we have to make sure we do it really well,” Lemov said. “It’s not just about banning cell phones, but also building vibrant student culture to make sure skeptics buy in.” 

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