Advice | Visiting schools that ban cell phones is like going back in time

We feel like we’re back in the eighties.

That’s what lunch monitors told Bethlehem Central High School principal Dave Doemel this fall, after the school — in the suburbs of Albany, N.Y. — implemented a total cell phone ban.

Bethlehem students are now required to keep all electronics in a sealed bag throughout the school day—a policy change that was “completely transformative” from the first week, Doemel told me when I visited the school last month.

He gestured to the cafeteria in front of us as if for a miracle. Groups of chatting students made a buzzing noise, punctuated by the clatter of trays and the squeak of chairs. It seemed completely normal to me. But that might be because the last time I was in a high school cafeteria during lunch was in the 1980s.

Normally, I’m wary of complaints that view the past as the standard and the present as a dangerous deviation from it. When the alarm goes off about falling marriage rates or about teens coming out as non-binary or about Gen Z leaving religion en masse, I wonder how many people got married early for lack of other options or conformed to rigid gender norms despite their discomfort , or stayed in church even when they didn’t feel like they belonged.

The past, as familiar as it is, was not necessarily better.

That’s why I say with some reluctance: children these days spend too much time on their mobile phones. A recent Gallup poll found that teens spend an average of nearly five hours a day alone on social media — not including games and text messages. A report from Common Sense Media shows that teens check their phones more than 100 times a day on average.

All that screen time is bad for adolescent mental health. The use of mobile phones compromises social interaction and is a weapon against bullying. Cell phones are also distracting. Even when not in use, they sit ready in pockets and backpacks and say: “Hi! Hi! Hi! Look at me!” That makes it hard to concentrate on anything, let alone applied geometry. Indeed, research shows that there is a link between cell phone use and lower grades and test scores.

Schools – and now some states – are increasingly trying to limit the harm by limiting phones in the classroom. Bethlehem was the first to try that. But distraction in the classroom is not the only problem. According to Doemel, because of telephones outside In class, every school dispute was recorded and posted, every insult or provocation shared, growing in power as it pinged through the apps.

That’s why he pushed for a total ban, and the school board voted unanimously in favor. Parents were concerned: that they would not be able to reach their children during the school day or that their children would be cut off in an emergency. But they can still call the office or even email. All students have Chromebooks and all classrooms have phones to call 911.

There was also resistance from some teachers, who protested that students should be treated as adults. It’s a common argument: We’ll leave students unprepared for life if we don’t teach them self-control and good judgment.

But how can we possibly prepare students to battle technology designed to be addictive? Adults can’t resist them either. Doemel compares it to “giving a child a cigarette and saying: be responsible.” Even if students want to take responsibility, they cannot.

The next day I visited Guilderland, another high school in the suburb of Albany where my sons attended. Guilderland doesn’t ban phones, but Principal Mike Piscitelli told me the school purchased storage bags to hang on classroom doors. The teachers set the rules and the administration makes it a point to support them. “Everyone is a little afraid of being the bad guy.”

He meant teachers. But school districts are also wary, even though they know cell phones cause problems. Piscitelli has observed the damage caused by constant access to social media for children and school. “If there is conflict, it never ends,” he said. “It just goes on and on.”

I didn’t see any conflict when Piscitelli and I visited the study hall, although who knows what lurked in the little magic boxes that each student had ready next to (or instead of) their work. I asked the librarian who oversaw them if she had noticed a change in her twenty years at Guilderland. Oh yes, she said. Students no longer know how to have a conversation.

On the way back we passed a grassy courtyard where three girls sat together in the sun looking at their phones. “Students have a hard time not being pulled,” Piscitelli had told me. I couldn’t help but imagine a trio of sunflowers all pointing toward the ground.

Guilderland is closely monitoring Bethlehem’s ban, as are many local schools. More than two dozen people visited—just as Bethlehem representatives visited the Schoharie, New York, school district last year—to witness the lively lunchroom, hear the old-fashioned noise between periods, and admire students working with walk their heads up through the hallways.

But are they ready to be the bad guy?

The question isn’t whether kids today are addicted to their phones, or whether that addiction is affecting their mental health, their social skills, and their communities. Of course they are, and of course they do. The question is whether we are prepared to use schools to break that addiction. Or at least to give kids a seven-hour break, 180 days a year.

I asked Doemel if anything about the implementation of the ban had surprised him. He said he hadn’t realized what a burden the phones had been to the studentssome of whom told him they were relieved not to have to respond to messages and texts during the school day.

Maybe they don’t learn to regulate their phone use. But they learn that sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to let someone else take it off their hands.