It was a handful of years ago that principal Marla Travis started noticing something alarming on her walks around West Philadelphia High: Kids were focusing not on the lessons but on their phones. There was no student engagement.
“Teachers were teaching themselves,” said Travis. “It just came to the point that we said: ‘It’s not going to work. We’re going to have to take the cell phones away.’”
Two years ago West Philadelphia started using Yondr pouches, sealed magnetic devices that allow students to keep phones in their possession but inaccessible until unlocked at the end of the day.
The results are both pronounced and incalculable. Kids are paying attention, but they are also interacting in ways they hadn’t before.
“It’s given children back their youth,” said Travis. “We have a beautiful courtyard that no one used before we had the Yondr pouches. Now, they use it.”
“It’s completely changed the tone of the hallways,” said Philadelphia Assistant Superintendent Jonathan Brown, whose network includes West Philly. “There’s a humanity now that we took the cell phones away.”
With cell phones’ ubiquity — and students’ increasing dependence on them, especially since the start of the pandemic — they have become some of the most difficult aspects of student behavior to manage. And everyone, from parents to teachers to administrators to students, has an opinion on what to do: Kids need phones for safety. Learning how to manage them is part of schooling. Phones are nothing but a distraction.
Nationally, most public schools do prohibit cell phone usage for non-academic purposes, federal records show. In the 2019-20 school year, the last for which data are available, 77% of schools had phone bans of some kind. But schools’ rules — from allowing phone use during lunch and in the hallways to confiscating any phones visible during the day — are often inconsistently applied.
Middle and high school students’ use of cell phones is near-universal, a 2020 Journal of the American Medical Association study found: Phone use now “starts at younger ages and is negatively associated with children’s academic and social-emotional outcomes.”
The Philadelphia School District allows schools to set their own technology policies, but more are moving to ban them, and are using Yondr to do so.
Overbrook High School was hit hard by the pandemic and Philadelphia’s surging gun violence; multiple Overbrook students have been shot and killed in recent years. Teen mental health suffered, and so did student behavior.
Principal Kahlila Johnson said the climate problems were amplified by students’ dependence on social media and their attachment to their phones. They would text or use apps to set up fights, or even Airdrop porn to one another in the middle of an assembly.
When the school adopted Yondr pouches in May, at first it was a withdrawal process.
Some students lingered outside before the school day, trying to squeeze in more time with their technology.
Months in, the changes have been obvious, Johnson said — more student engagement, fewer fights, calmer hallways, even a decrease in parents coming to school threatening teachers.
“It takes away the technology and it supports building relationships,” Johnson said of removing student access to cell phones.
Yondr pouches aren’t you perfect They cost about $19 per student, and schools must use discretionary funds from their tight budgets to buy them. Students who lose the pouches must pay to replace them. And they can be defeated — one Philadelphia teacher said his students learned how to break them by watching TikTok videos.
Travis said she found the pouches 80% to 90% effective, a major win for the school.
Martin Luther King High School in East Germantown doesn’t ban phones or require students to lock them up, and senior Lance Plumer is relieved about that.
“I wouldn’t feel very safe at King if I didn’t have my phone,” said Plumer, 18. When someone set a trash can on fire last year, forcing an early dismissal, Plumer texted his mom: i’m ok I’m coming home. She would have worried otherwise, Plumer said.
Even though Plumer is a diligent student, he admits: “My phone is a bit of a distraction for me. Every time I get a notification, I check to see what it is.”
Schools’ policies have certainly evolved. When Gale Morrison’s son, who’s now 21, was in middle school, cell phones were becoming more prevalent among teenagers.
“The policy was ‘Oh they’ll learn not to distract themselves kind of thing.’ But we’re finally getting some understanding that doesn’t work,” said Morrison, whose daughter now attends Radnor Middle School, where cell phones must be off and away during the school day, unless teachers allow them for educational purposes.
“I feel like there’s a growing acknowledgment that we don’t want these in school. You can see they’re a disservice to teachers and what they’re trying to accomplish. They don’t make children any happier.”
Morrison wishes there were more consistent rules around phones — it’s tough for teens when one teacher allows their use and another doesn’t. And she thinks a lot about how constant phone use during the pandemic was bad for students’ mental health.
A month ago, Morrison’s daughter, who is 14, had a revelation, she said. “She said: ‘I’m getting off my phone. It’s making me miserable.’”
Crystal Clark purchased cell phones for her own children “for what I thought were safety reasons,” she said. But it’s become clear to the principal of Elkins Park School in the Cheltenham School District that the 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds who attend the school don’t always have the maturity to use phones responsibly, she said.
“Reports of students using cell phones in class, bathrooms, and other areas of the school are out of control,” Clark wrote in a letter to parents the second week of school. “Group messaging invites bullying behavior and picture taking of others is an invasion of privacy. In addition, Apple watches and other smart devices connected to the phone invite cheating and other dishonest behavior. This needs to stop.”
Clark reminded Elkins Park families that cell phones must be turned off during the school day. Those who need to make emergency calls must do so from the main office, and those caught with cell phones have them confiscated, she said.
At Moorestown High, policies vary by class. Math teacher Beth Glennon decided to go “old school,” cutting off cell usage completely this year. Over the last two years, student phones became disruptive, with “incessant notifications, every single minute. The kids don’t need that. It’s hard enough to keep attention in math class.”
Phones also fostered cheating in some cases — Glennon’s students were suddenly solving every problem because many used an app to scan and solve equations.
Sure, students complained when Glennon made her no-phone decree. But one young man approached Glennon on Thursday to say how different math class felt from others, where phones were allowed.
“I said, ‘This class goes by so quickly.’ I said, ‘It’s because you’re not checking your phone every single minute,’” Glennon said.
Vanessa Fidrych, a Spanish teacher at Roxborough High, also took a different tack than the schoolwide policy, which says cell phones must be off and away during class.
She employs what she calls a “mutual-respect policy” — if she’s teaching an important lesson and students are clearly paying attention to a phone and not Fidrych, she’ll tell them to put the phone down. But if they want to listen to music or use their phones in other ways during independent practice, that’s OK, as long as they get their work done.
“Everybody needs to learn the skills for balancing your phone and social media and getting your job done,” said Fidrych. “You have to consider how cell phones exist in our world; if I’m in a meeting, there are teachers on their phones while information is being presented. It’s not a realistic expectation to say, ‘Your cell phones are locked away from 7:30 to 2:34.”
It’s clear, though, that there is a price. Every year, Fidrych has a few students who don’t have phones and “honestly, they’re the ones who tend to do really well in class,” she said.
Fidrych also has children of her own, and feels strongly that parents should have access to their children at all times.
“Unless we’re going to do something about gun violence, you cannot eliminate the option” of giving students access to phones, she said.
Cell phones can also be necessary in the classroom, Science Leadership Academy at Beeber teacher Mary Beth Hertz said — students who didn’t yet have Chromebooks the first week of school used phones to fill out surveys and getting-to-know-you forms.
But Hertz also collects students’ phones if they are having trouble concentrating. She discusses with students maintaining eye contact and being present, and teaches about the realities of cell phone use — the darker side young people don’t often think about.
“We talk about Stanford behavioral scientists hired by Big Tech to design the little dopamine slot machines we carry around,” Hertz said. “I tell them about my own struggles with my phone, I remind them that their eyeballs are dollar signs, and tell them it’s not their fault that they can’t stop looking at these things.”