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Turning Back The Clock

Next year, when students enter the school grounds, they will be asked to place their smartphone in a small, green pouch with a magnetic lock. They will keep the pouch all day. If they have a teacher who wants them to use their phones in class, she’ll unlock the pouches, but when class ends, she’ll lock them back up again. At the end of the day, when they leave the school grounds, someone will unlock the pouch. At that point, they’ll be able to check their messages and notifications and Instagram “likes.”

At least that’s one possible scenario that we may see all around the state in August. It also depends on the school district and the smartphone policy that the district creates between now and August.

In January, a law went into effect that allows school districts “to limit or prohibit the use” of smartphones by students while they are at school. Known as Assembly Bill 272, the new law was enacted to raise school performance, reduce cyberbullying, and combat “teenage anxiety, depression and suicide.”

I’ve been teaching high school students for a long time, twenty-six years at my current school. I think I have developed a pretty good understanding of teenagers. They are young adolescents who go through many changes during their time in high school. Adolescence is not an easy time. Acne. Homework. Parents. Dating. Driving. Grades.

Smartphones aren’t making it any easier.

In fact, smartphones are only making it worse.

But you don’t just have to listen to an old English teacher. Pay attention to the research.

For one thing, human brains barely handle everything around them. In our classes, we teachers are constantly asking students to pay attention. The handouts and the words on the whiteboard and the directions we give them are already sufficient to overwhelm many of them. We know smartphones only add to the confusion. Now research shows that students don’t even have to be using their smartphones for them to affect their performance in class. In “Brain Drain: the Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity,” Adrian Ward and others explain how people’s ability to absorb, understand, and process “potentially meaningful information” is harmed by simply having a smartphone in front of them. According to Ward, their awareness of a “broad social and informational network” somewhere else is enough to keep people from living in the present.

This distraction is enough to affect student performance. In schools where smartphones were limited, students outperformed schools where smartphones were permitted. When drafting AB 272, the lawmakers of California relied closely on a study conducted by the London School of Economics, “Ill Communication: Technology, Distraction & Student Performance,” which surveyed 91 schools and found “a positive relationship between the introduction of a mobile phone ban and student test scores.” Today, we are just as concerned with mental health as with student grades.

Our state legislature shares that concern. AB 272 refers to “growing evidence that unrestricted use of smartphones. . . lowers pupil performance, . . . promotes cyberbullying, and contributes to an increase in teenage” mental health problems. Like a growing number of schools around the nation, Rialto High School now has a “Wellness Center.” Students who experience emotional distress during the school day can ask to be sent to the Wellness Center and speak with a full-time counselor. She tells me that she’s busy every hour with students.

When school begins again in the fall, teachers all around the state will be hoping that this law turns back the clock to a time before smartphones: when students listened to the teacher and not to J. Cole on earbuds; when students were content with their appearance and cared nothing about how many Instagram “likes” they have; when students stared down into their laps to rest their eyes and not to read a text from their besties.


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