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Is a statewide ban on cell phones in schools realistic?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Los Angeles School Board has voted to ban the use of cellphones in the country's second largest school district.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

LA school board member Nick Melvoin pointed to studies highlighting the harmful effects of cellphones in the classroom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICK MELVOIN: They're surreptitiously scrolling in school, in class time. They have their head in their hands walking down the hallways. They're not talking to each other or playing at lunch or recess 'cause they have their AirPods in.

MARTIN: California's Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom is pushing to implement a statewide ban. And that's after Republican-led states such as Indiana and Florida have already put their own bans in place.

FADEL: With me now is Alyson Klein. She's a reporter for Education Week. Good morning, Alyson.

ALYSON KLEIN: Good morning.

FADEL: So banning smartphones in schools is one of those rare policies that Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on. But it hasn't always been a popular idea, so what's changed?

KLEIN: So I think during the pandemic, kids just had access to their tech 24/7.

FADEL: Yeah.

KLEIN: And many say that they're addicted to them, right? Kids get hundreds of notifications a day, a study by Common Sense Media found. And that can make it hard to focus, all those dings in class - right? - all that buzzing.

FADEL: Yeah.

KLEIN: And the same study by Common Sense found that nearly all students use their phone at some point during the day for about 43 minutes, which is about the same time - right? - as a class period. So they're spending about as much time gaming or watching YouTube or on TikTok as they are in chemistry class.

FADEL: So earlier this week, the U.S. surgeon general called for a warning label on social media saying it's harmful to kids' mental health. Is that part of why more schools want to ban cellphones, or is it mostly about kids paying attention in class?

KLEIN: I think it's a mix of both. Yes, kids are obviously distracted in class. Although, there are some teachers who really don't want to see cellphones banned because they're using them as a teaching tool.

FADEL: OK.

KLEIN: Phones, though, are also changing how kids, like, socialize with each other. And you heard the LA school board member reference this. I had one principal tell me that there are days when his lunchroom is basically quiet, and kids are texting the kid across the table from them instead of actually talking to each other.

FADEL: Wow. OK, another form of communication. Has anyone figured out a good way to implement and enforce these restrictions?

KLEIN: So it's often up to teachers to enforce these bans, which really puts them in, you know, a tough spot with their students. It's kind of like playing Whac-A-Mole, right? They're just taking a phone away every minute. And back in 2015, New York City reversed its ban on cellphones because they found there were some really big equity issues. Essentially, the ban was being really strictly enforced at schools serving mostly low-income kids, and not so strictly enforced at some of the wealthier schools. And there were even some local stores that were charging kids money to hold their cellphones all day so they could get it right after school. It really just got to be too much, so it'll be interesting to see whether LA has those same problems.

FADEL: And how are students and their parents reacting to these recent bans?

KLEIN: So a lot of parents want their kids to have their phone in school basically so they can reach them in case of an emergency. I talked to a superintendent one time who said a parent told her that she could take away her kid's phone once she started paying the family's cellphone bill, right? But in other cases, parents understand that this is about focusing in class. And it's important to say that these bans don't necessarily say you can't have your phone in school at all. Some schools require kids to keep their phone in their locker, for instance.

FADEL: Alyson Klein, reporter for Education Week. Thanks, Alyson.

KLEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.