Driven to distraction: Cell phones in the high school classroom

Eight years ago we purchased a cell phone for our now 22 year old daughter when she began grade nine. Our rationale was that being more independent at that time, a cell phone for communication (with us in particular) was warranted. Now, waiting until our children are high school age to purchase a cell phone for them is almost unheard of. When our younger daughter (now 14), was 12, she got her first cell phone.

No more are cell phones a coveted luxury item. They are as much a normal extension of a child’s life as their backpack and computer. Most kids have cell phones by the age of 11 or 12. And as much as parents are frustrated by their incessant texting, instagramming and internet exploring, we do like being able to reach them.

Aside from the obvious benefits of living in an era of technological advancement, I have yet to meet a parent who didn’t want to help their children manage time on their cell phones better. I know that I, along with many other parents, am not always the best role model. I also know that it’s hard to follow through with rules about where and when cell phones are to be used around the house. Like most other households, we have created rules around no screen time during certain hours of the day, no cell phones at the kitchen table and rules about putting away all other electronic devices when watching television or playing a board game as a family. As hard as we try, it seems that those pesky devices slowly creep back into our hands, living room and kitchen and that we often need to reconvene to re establish guidelines.

When our younger daughter began high school this year, she was thrilled to learn that she didn’t have to leave her cell phone in her locker during class time, as required in elementary school. When I attended the orientation session with the Principal on the first day of grade nine, she told us that cell phones in the classroom were at the discretion of the teacher and that they often incorporated them as learning tools. Beyond that, I believe that most teachers don’t want to spend time arguing with their students about putting them away. During recent parent teacher interviews I asked some of our daughter’s teachers about their views. One said that she sometimes asks the students to look up information on their cell phones and that because of a shortage of photocopy paper, she gets kids to take photographs of handouts on their phone. She mentioned her concern about kids taking pictures of themselves and friends during class time and then instagramming or texting one another, but that she didn’t mind this if their work was complete. She also said that she wasn’t allowed to take cell phones from the students and that she preferred not to ask them to deposit them in a bin at the front of the classroom during class time (as I once heard a high school teacher at another school does) because she would be responsible for replacing the phone if it got taken by someone else. I was told that if a student is using and distracted by their cell phone excessively, that she sends him or her to the office where the phone is placed in a secure area.

Even though it sounded as if this particular teacher had established guidelines and consequences, my concern is that if cell phones are on students’ desks, how can we expect them to muster the willpower to not check for messages during class time or to send texts? I play my part by refusing to dialogue when texted during class time, but I can’t control my daughter’s electronic interaction with friends. I know that it’s harder for our generation of parents – who relied on doodling or looking out of the window to escape boredom – to accept that cell phones are appropriate sources of distraction.

I’m not convinced that most high school students have the maturity or discipline to choose learning over texting and not sure declining grades should be the consequence for not being able to manage what has become addictive behaviour for many. I worry that declining grades may lead to diminished motivation and big gaps in learning that may be hard to fill. I’m concerned that cell phones in the high school classroom may be setting our children up for failure.

What’s happening in your high school child’s classroom? Has cell phone distraction caused his or her marks to decline? Do you think that parents and teachers should be working together to help manage this concern? Let me know what you think at