Community Education

Peninsula School District tells students to put away their cell phones

Posted on July 31st, 2023 By:

Heads up, students. When you get back to school on Sept. 5, plan to tuck that cell phone away, take those air buds out of your ears and stash your headphones.

Peninsula School District has enacted a ban on cell phone use at school except during lunch. All social media apps will be blocked on the district’s wi-fi network.

Addicted to devices

Harsh, you say?

District officials, concerned about the impact of cell phones on the learning environment and students’ mental health, have decided it’s high time to set firm boundaries on digital access.

“Coming out of the pandemic, we have seen a substantial increase in poor behaviors regarding cell phones and social media,” said Kris Hagel, executive director of learning and innovation. “We have also seen a drastic increase in behaviors that appear to be an addiction to these devices and services.”

The school board on Thursday approved the new policy. It places strict restrictions on students’ use of “telecommunications devices” including cell phones, smart watches, “non-medical listening devices” and headsets.

The board also approved two related policies: an overarching policy on Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy, and a policy on Electronic Resources and Internet Safety.

A chorus of complaints

Cell phone bans in schools are part of a growing trend, according to Hagel. The U.S. Surgeon General has issued an advisory sounding the alarm about social media and youth mental health. And UNESCO — the United Nation’s education — science and culture agency, has recently come out urging a ban on cell phones in schools globally.

Over the past decade, Peninsula School District has taken a permissive approach. The district allowed students to bring their own cell phones and access social media from district networks. Students could have their devices in all areas of the school, including classrooms, unless explicitly restricted by their teacher.

“We have long held the belief in our district that the best way for students to learn appropriate behavior on social media and with cell phones is to allow them access and, if they make mistakes, do so in the vicinity of caring adults such as parents and teachers who can correct the errors and offer opportunities for new learning on appropriate behaviors,” Hagel said in a statement on the ban.

The district, however, has heard from a growing chorus of teachers and administrators complaining about their ability to manage cell phone use in classrooms and buildings. Parents also asked the district for more restrictions on cell phones at school, Hagel said.

Even some students welcome the ban, according to Hagel. The district tapped student leaders — ASB officers and student representatives to the school board — for input on the new rules, and they were on board, he said. Some are planning a PSA this fall to introduce the change.

New cell phone rules

The new policy allows students to bring phones to school. However, they may not “access” or operate it during the regular school day except during lunch break. The ban applies while you are “on school property or while attending school-sponsored or school-related activities,” the policy states.

Cell phone use would be allowed only when authorized by an administrator, or in an emergency situation “that involves imminent physical danger.”

“Students will not use telecommunication devices in a manner that poses a threat to academic integrity, disrupts the learning environment, or violates the privacy rights of others,” the policy states.

Devices may be confiscated if a school official has “reasonable suspicion” that the rules have been violated. The device would be returned only to the student’s parent or legal guardian.

Bringing a cell phone to school now implies consent to have it searched when there’s reasonable suspicion that a search will reveal violation of the law or school rules. Students who violate the rules may be subject to disciplinary action.

The district doesn’t aim to control parental choice in how students are allowed to access social media outside of school, Hagel said. Parents and students are advised to give a close read to the changes in this year’s Rights & Responsibilities handbook.

But what about …

The policy doesn’t explicitly call out a ban on cell phone use at sporting events and school-sponsored activities, Hagel said. Principals felt that the policy clause on not “disrupting the learning environment” would be enough to govern these situations.

And social media in school buildings is now blocked 24/7. That combined with notoriously poor reception inside most school buildings will help keep access in check.

Gaming sites have long been blocked on the district’s wifi networks. The one exception is a video gaming club, which meets in the library of Gig Harbor High School under supervision of an advisor.

YouTube is available to students in a restricted mode, and videos they see must be pre-approved. “There is still a ton of good educational content on YouTube that teachers rely on, so we can’t block it all,” Hagel said.

Streaming services are still allowed, Hagel said. “We really need to work with teachers first before we block those to ensure they don’t need them. That will be a conversation for fall for our teacher advisory groups.”

Procedural guidelines for parameters of the ban and enforcement are being drafted and will be issued to staff in late August.

Surgeon General’s warning

The district, making its case for the ban, cited an advisory issued this year by the U.S. Surgeon General. The advisory says potential harm to youth mental health outweighs the potential benefits of social media.

Up to 95% of youth 13-17 use a social media platform, according to the report. More than a third say they use it “almost constantly.” Social media platforms commonly require users to be at least 13 years old, but nearly 40% of children 8 to 12 use social media.

The report acknowledges potential positives of social media, which can provide a sense of community and connection, or create a space for self-expression. But the potential negative effects are undeniable.

A study of adolescents ages 13 to 15 found that those who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double the risk of experiencing depression and anxiety, according to the report.

The study cited cyberbullying, exposure to explicit content, negative body image, sleep disturbances and increased risk of self-harm as potential fallout from social media use. Breaches of privacy and potential exposure to online predators are other problems.

An urgent public health issue

The impacts of social media are amplified in children and adolescents by the nature of their brain development, the advisory states. Researchers are only just starting to learn its effects on the growing brain.

Then there’s the issue of addiction. One survey of 8th and 10th graders showed the average time spent on social media is 3.5 hours per day. One in four spend more than five hours per day on their platform of choice.

The advisory suggests legislators, educators, health care providers and researchers all have a role to play in addressing the impacts of social media on young people. Parents can’t do it alone.

“Nearly every teenager in America uses social media, and yet we do not have enough evidence to conclude that it is sufficiently safe for them,” the report says. “Our children and adolescents don’t have the luxury of waiting years until we know the full extent of social media’s impact.”

Healthy digital humans

Hagel said the new policy aims to reduce the distraction of social media at least while students are in school.

“Social media and kids’ cell phone use in the classroom have become extremely disruptive, especially since COVID,” Hagel told the school board on introducing the policy June 22. “And so, it’s a next step we have to take.”

The policy goes hand-in-hand with the district’s implementation of Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy, which gives students tools and information to safely and responsibly navigate the digital world. Now they’ll be doing that in a much more controlled environment.

“We do not believe that these new restrictions will hamper innovation,” Hagel said. “But (they) will allow our teachers and students to be able to focus more on instruction and find the appropriate avenues to use the resources we provide to every student to explore and create with technology while working to grow into healthy digital humans who use technology resources as tools, and not the inverse of being controlled by the technology they have.”