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Opinion: We Need to Talk About K-12 Cellphone Restrictions

In the absence of statewide policies on cellphone use in schools, a recent education panel in Massachusetts said local districts should be taking a hard look at their policies and student mental health.

A group of young adults sitting on a bench on a sidewalk all looking down at their phones.
(TNS) — Jeff Riley, commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is to be commended for convening a panel Tuesday that discussed restrictions on the use of cellphones by students during school hours.

While he said there are no statewide rules or regulations being considered at this time, it's a pressing issue that needs to be dealt with, Statehouse reporter Christian Wade wrote in a story published Wednesday.

"I thought it was important that we hear from the districts and most importantly, the students, who have gone through this," Riley told members of the Board of DESE.

There's much at stake. Following the pandemic, a lot of focus was rightly put on the mental health of adolescents and teenagers. A crisis developed due to prolonged periods of isolation brought on by shuttered schools and remote learning, all of which was needed to stem the spread of COVID-19. In light of what has been called a nationwide mental health crisis, the notion that cellphones may bear some of the blame for increases in depression, anxiety and loneliness among young people has taken hold.

Studies show that social media has increased mental health problems for youth. While the reasons for this are still being puzzled out by the experts, it's clear that less screen time in certain, controlled environments such as school might not be a bad thing.

Social media has been linked to bullying and other misbehavior, which can become a distraction during school hours. Also, students with their heads down as they wander through the hallways is not conducive to face-to-face interactions, which are so important to the development of humans.

Along those lines, Traci Walker Griffith, executive director of the Eliot School in Boston, testified that students at the innovation school are required to put their cellphones and other gadgets in sealed "pouches" that can only be unlocked by teachers during the school day.

She told board members that data from the COVID-19 pandemic made clear that students need the personal interactions that are neglected by those who spend too much time on their phones.

"Mostly for us, it was an opportunity to build more social interaction, structurally and academically, but also social-emotional needs of our students," she told the panel. "Clearly it's an ongoing process, but we do feel deeply that it has positively impacted our school community."

Some will say it's just more overreach by the nanny state, and that's a valid criticism, which is why decisions on limiting cellphone use in schools should be left up to local school boards. In New York City, for example, a ban on cellphones in schools was overturned by then-Mayor Bill deBlasio, who cited public safety concerns.

That's valid, too. In the age of school shootings and increased violence in general, it's comforting for parents to know that their child has a communication device in his or her backpack that could be used to save lives.

In NYC, now it's up to the principals of each school to determine cellphone policies.

There are many facets to this debate, which is why it's so important to have. If nothing else, Riley's focus on the issue should prompt school districts around the state to put the issue up for discussion. Hold hearings. Invite the public to respond. Read the reports about the dangers of social media.

Parents should have every right to be part of the discussion and part of a solution that might improve the overall health and well-being of their children.

©2023 The Salem News (Beverly, Mass.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.