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Pennsylvania Senate to Consider Bill on Cellphones at School

Legislation recently advanced by the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee would enlist various districts to participate in a two-year pilot program to test the impact of locking up student cellphones during the day.

Pennsylvania Statehouse in Harrisburg
The Pennsylvania State House in Harrisburg.
David Kidd/Governing
(TNS) — Maybe it’s time for students to lock up their phones while in school and give themselves a mental health break from what some call a learning distraction.

It’s an idea that a senator put forth in a bill the Senate Education Committee passed on Tuesday by a 10-1 vote to put to a test to see if it can provide some relief to the mental distress teens are facing.

Why it’s needed: The legislation’s sponsor, Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster County, cites statistics that suggest that access to smartphones and social media are a root cause of children’s mental health issues that have been on the rise since the early 2010s. Even the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has raised a red flag about the impact social media is having on teens and urged lawmakers to consider what Aument is proposing in the Pennsylvania pilot.

Proponents of limiting phone access point to studies such as one from the Pew Research Center that found roughly three-quarters of teens say not having their phones often or sometimes makes them feel happy (74 percent) or peaceful (72 percent). Studies show access to and use of mobile devices before bed can lead to inadequate sleep quantity, poor sleep quality and excessive daytime sleepiness. Aument also points to data showing teens receive an average of 237 notifications on their phones a day, which he suggests can’t help but impact their ability to learn.

What his bill would do: The legislation would direct the Pennsylvania Crime and Delinquency Commission’s School Safety and Security Committee to provide funding to a geographically dispersed selection of interested schools to buy secure cellphone lockable bags. Those schools then would track the impact on students’ mental health, behavior and academic performance over two school years and submit their findings to the committee. The committee would create a report for the General Assembly and governor to evaluate to determine any further expansion of the idea.

The number of schools that would receive grants to buy the lockable bags would depend on the level of funding this initiative would receive.

Louisiana and Indiana already have laws on the books restricting student access to cell phones during instruction hours, according to data from ExcelinEd in Action, which has produced research on the topic of students’ access to cell phones and social media.

What people are saying: Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny County, cast the sole dissenting vote to oppose the bill but not because she doesn’t support the idea. She said she is open to it but thinks the bill narrowly directs the type of phone bags to be purchased to a single vendor. She would like to see it amended to allow schools to have more flexibility in the product they use to secure phones.

Two other Democratic senators — Tim Kearney of Delaware County and Carolyn Committa of Chester County — said they shared Williams’ view on the need for more options but voted for the bill, saying they support moving forward with it after expressing concerns about the impact cell phones and social media is having on young teens.

Aument said he was open to having conversations to allow for more options for schools but believes it is important that phones are kept safe and secure to avoid opening up liability concerns for schools. He also said they need to be mindful of the options chosen since kids can be creative in finding ways to access their devices if left in a pocket or backpack.

Aument said the positive response this legislative idea has received from parents, educators and school administrators confirms “what educators are seeing in the classroom, what parents are experiencing, the struggles with their own children and the struggles that their friend’s children are having managing these devices at home and certainly, absolutely during school hours. I just think it’s absolutely critical that we take steps to free our kids from these devices, the addiction to these devices, the addiction to social media during the school day.”

What’s next: The bill is in a position to be considered by the full Senate and may have a chance of being included as part of the 2024-25 state budget package.

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