Apr 30, 2024

Phone-Free Schools Are Half the Solution

Phone-Free Schools Are Half the Solution

Away for the Day is the next right thing. But it’s not the full solution.

Away for the Day is the next right thing. But it’s not the full solution.

Kindergartners playing on ipads at school
Kindergartners playing on ipads at school
Kindergartners playing on ipads at school

One of the things that makes my parenting-in-the-digital-age job so much easier is the fact that my tween daughter’s school has an “Away for the Day” policy when it comes to student devices. This means no student devices are supposed to be on your person the entire school day – from first bell to last bell. 


There is variation in “Away for the Day” policies. 


Some school administrators tell me they have an “Away for the Day” plan in place. But kids can still use devices between classes, at lunch, or both. 

The problem with this, of course, is that the passing periods and lunch breaks during a school day are prime time for social skill building. If a student has a mini-TV or game console in their pocket to pull out and use in their free time, they will do that instead of hanging around awkwardly with other teenagers. Because that first kid is looking at their device, those other teenagers are also staring at their phones. Which is NORMAL for middle and high schoolers to do. (If everyone else is doing it, I will, too…)

There will be a lot of variety in how schools implement “Away for the Day” policies. And for the most part, despite some pushback (from parents!), “Away for the Day” is where things are headed. The momentum is here, the pendulum is swinging, and many parents and teachers want things to be different. 

That being said, it won’t be easy. Last week, I wrote about Mr. Jim Foudy’s district in Hailey, Idaho, moving toward a phone-free school policy and the positive changes he’s witnessed. Other districts and schools are making this change with similar outcomes.

Even more encouraging, new research from Norway points to several positive outcomes when schools ban smartphones:

  • Improved mental health 

  • Decreased incidents of bullying

  • Increased GPAs 


It’s good to have the research to back this up, but many of us have known (and been saying) for years that too much smartphone access for young people isn’t great across a wide range of scenarios. And generally speaking, I have yet to hear a school administrator say, “I wish we hadn’t removed student smartphones.” Please let me know if you hear of one. 


“Away for the Day” is coming, and it’s 100% the right next step. 


Of course, even with such policies in place, some kids will break the rules. (That’s developmentally normal.) But we cannot let “perfect” be the enemy of “good enough.” There is ample research and anecdotal evidence now to support this change. We just need leaders courageous enough to make the leap. 


But removing student phones from the classroom will only address part of the screentime challenge. This includes screens used in and for school. 


For over a decade, schools have been moving towards “1:1 programs” (one laptop or computer for every student in a school); movements to “close the digital divide” have been wildly popular; and teacher professional development has focused on all things “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). 


Remote learning and the pandemic revealed two things about education and technology:


  1. During the early days of lockdown, schools’ use of technology-based platforms and tools accelerated exponentially to meet student needs. 

  2. Parents got a peek behind the curtain at how much screen-based technology was really being used for education and teaching, even though things had been amping up for a few years prior.


The data bear this out. According to research by the EdWeek Research Center, before the pandemic, about 60% of district administrators provided 1:1 digital devices for every middle and high school student. For elementary schools, that number was closer to 40%. 


But a year into the pandemic, the middle and high school rate of 1:1 programs was now at 90% and for elementary schools, it was 84%.

EdWeek Research Center device rates


These are big leaps in just a few short years, especially for elementary school-aged children. 

I have said it before, and I will say it again and again: 

I am not anti-technology; I am tech-intentional. 


I believe technology has a role in education, but it needs to be based on skills first (before screens), rooted in child development and learning, and built on educator expertise, not technologists' profit goals.


Today, in 2024, that is not what the landscape of technology in education looks like at all. It is not focused on skills first; it is rarely rooted in child development; it is all about what technologists deem valuable, not what teachers know is best. Please do not blame teachers for this either – they rarely make the decisions to implement such technologies and are often beholden to its implementation, whether they like it or not. 


Therefore, the next step in the Phone-Free Schools movement is addressing screentime in and for schools. A longer essay on this topic is coming, but it is important to know that EdTech is just Big Tech in a sweater vest: It utilizes the same manipulative design features to increase engagement; it collects, sells, and monetizes our data (in the case of schools, our children’s data); and it doesn’t make education, teaching, and learning collectively better. 


Let me conclude with two examples to illustrate why “Away for the Day” is only the first step in this two-part solution:


Last week, I volunteered at my daughter’s middle school. They were hosting several schools for a choir festival, and I was tasked with helping check in the school groups as they arrived and then directing them to a student volunteer who would take them to the warm-up room. Once a choir had performed, they returned to the auditorium to sit and watch the other schools. Because we were hosting the event, my daughter’s choir performed first, which meant that they were the first to fill the auditorium seats and watch the remainder of the performances. 


As a former middle school teacher, I feel fairly comfortable talking to middle schoolers. So I chatted with my student volunteers about middle school life, what they liked about their school, etc. At one point, I poked my head into the auditorium, where the choir students from our school were sitting and watching. And I immediately noticed three students with laptops on their laps, playing a car racing video game. I wasn’t mistaken about this– it was blatantly obvious that this is what they were doing. My student volunteer colleagues noticed it, too, shrugged, and said, “Yeah, this happens all the time.”

middle school auditorium


As a reminder, this is a phone-free school. Yet these students were spending their class time (in this instance, in a theater, during a performance) playing games on their school-issued laptops. Was this better than having them look at a phone?


The second example is this photo, which was sent to me by a friend whose child is in first grade at a local public school.

kids playing on ipads on playground


She took the photo in the morning before the first school bell had rung. At that time, children could run around and play on the playground before shuffling into school to sit and learn for the next six hours.  


And yet, she noticed this group of kindergarteners sitting on the concrete, pulling their school-district-issued iPads out of their backpacks and…“playing” on those instead.


Phones in school are an issue.


Phones at home are an issue.


But school laptops and tablets are also absolutely the second part of this huge problem, and any change we make towards decreasing technology and screen use at school must include addressing the “screen use for school” problem, too.

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Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™ are registered trademarks.

The Screentime Consultant Logo Footer image

Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™

are registered trademarks.

The Screentime Consultant Logo Footer image

Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™ are registered trademarks.