From the Desk of Julia Brown – Effect of Mobile Phones

While I remember the days of rotary phones, attached to the wall and only one per home, I am most likely in the minority to do so. The mobile phone is not so ubiquitous, many homes are doing away with a landline. I am sure it comes as no surprise that I am not one of those doing so!

As the mobile phone makes its way into the hands of the very young, discussion to determine whether these devices should be allowed in schools has been taking place for a few months. This is quite a quandary for educators at all levels of schools. Should they be allowed in elementary schools at all? What about middle-schoolers using them at lunch? Which limits make the most sense for devices so ubiquitous? 

What has become a more settled matter for high school students is sparking questions and controversy in lower grades, especially in our area. 

It used to be that students through fifth grade could carry cellphones only with special permission. But over the years, an increasing number of parents wanted their elementary-age children to take phones to school, often believing children would be – safer — walking home or in an emergency — with the device at the ready. 

As the Maryland districts moved to do away with the old rule, other parents objected — shocked that children as young as 6 or 7 would be permitted to bring smartphones to school. Those objecting in the main felt that the phone would be more of a distraction and that without a demonstrated need, felt that there ought to not be phones in elementary school at all.

The change in district rules, which took effect this fall, also allows middle school students to use cellphones during lunch if principals give the okay — an idea that has conjured images of children bent over phones in the cafeteria and left parents, already worried about the hours their children spend on screens, dismayed. 

While there is little national data on how school systems handle such issues, it appears that approaches vary widely. Some schools ban smartphones, while others allow them in hallways or during lunch periods, or actively incorporate them into instruction.

A survey of third-graders in five states found that 40 percent had a cellphone in 2017, twice as many as in 2013. Among the third-graders who had a phone, more than 80 percent said they brought them to school daily, according to a preliminary analysis. 

In the D.C. region, rules often vary by school. 

In Fairfax County, some middle schools allow cellphones during lunch, and some don’t. In Prince George’s, they are allowed with principal approval. In the District, public schools also develop cellphone policies at the school level. At least one middle school gives phones back to students at lunch. 

In Montgomery, school system officials say they are changing with the times, in an increasingly digital world where more parents buy their children phones and more children tuck them into backpacks, pockets and lockers. Students in all grades are responsible for using them appropriately.

But some parents voice concern that the end of a requirement to get a waiver will mean more devices in elementary school. Children are not allowed to use phones during school hours, unless a teacher blends them into instruction. They may use them after dismissal and on school buses under the new rules. 

As Montgomery’s middle schools consider the issue, many parents worry about the broader phenomenon of screen time. They say students need face-to-face contact to develop social skills, expand friendships and learn to navigate uncomfortable situations; they don’t need another place where phones take over their attention. 

But the phone-friendly lunch has supporters. Those who support doing this believe that phone privileges at lunch would give students the chance to learn about responsible use and get ready for the world beyond middle school. Frankly a contention that I find not all that convincing.

At one area middle school, a middle ground has been sought. Cellphones are allowed at Friday lunches this year, with ground rules: No Snapchat or Instagram. No violent games or taking photos or videos. Ear buds for playing music. 

Another middle school in Silver Spring allows cellphones at lunch five days a week. But the privilege ends if students are not responsible. Provision is made for those who lack phones. Those students may use the school’s Chromebook laptops at lunch. 

Unsurprisingly, students overwhelmingly feel strongly that their phones should be available to them.

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