It's 2018, Where do we stand on cell phones?


At EEC, the middle school program and most transition programs have students turn phones in at check in each morning. The distraction of students having phones or taking each other’s phones has outweighed the benefit of access to educational applications. Students have access to computers or iPads for educational content. We are not a 1:1 building.


George Couros just shared this great article on Twitter that takes a quick look at both sides of the cell phone conversation. I really like the simplicity of the author’s message.


Good article, thanks for sharing! When I taught I had two classroom rules: Focus and Respect. That’s all I ever used.

A challenging element of this to me, however, is that it takes skill and self discipline to use phones well. Good intentions aren’t often enough. It’s so easy to get distracted/addicted/pulled away from the present surroundings.




Hamline is doing a social-emotional learning summer institute on this very subject and it looks really good. I have a conflict, unfortunately, but in case you’re interested:

Breaking the Trance: Strategies for Combating Recreational Screen Dependence, June 20-21


This interview with Simon Sinek really connects to this conversation. I recommend taking the time to view it, at least the first 15 minutes. I’d love some discussion on here about it!


So, at Gateway we are trying a new approach.

We have calculator caddies in each classroom and the expectation is that you put your cell phone in the caddy or in your backpack at the start of class. Teachers build “technology breaks” into daily lessons where the students can use their phones for 5 minutes or so and then are expected to resume the lesson. If a student is caught up and their daily work is complete then the teacher checks it and will allow them to use their cell phone as long as it doesn’t interfere with other students. Anyone that refuses to comply must meet and discuss their issues with the counselor and/or the program coordinator. So far, student participation and engagement in classes has been much higher and the quality of the work has really improved.

I do realize that this is not the best solution as it treats the cell phone like a drug, where students can get a “fix” at the teachers discretion; however it does seem to be working. Students do have chromebooks for internet access and if they strongly feel the need to listen to music so there really is no reason for them to have their phones in class at this point. I have had several students ask if they could check their phones at some specific time in class as they are expecting a call or a text about a ride or something. This is a huge positive in that it requires them to communicate their needs and realize that there is a set level of expectations in the social norms of the classroom.

So far this procedure is working and there has actually been a number of students who have forgotten their phones and have returned to the classroom to pick them up. I see this as a huge plus because it means that the world of social media and other distractions was cast off at least for the time that they were in class. I realize that this procedure will not work in all settings or with all types of students, but so far it is working for us.


Wow, Sinek’s video is really good. Thanks for posting it. I’m split between two reactions but would love to talk about this more.

My first reaction is that he’s right on target.

My second reaction is that there is a whole other side to this. Most of what he’s talking about equates phones with distraction. This is the part I don’t get. If we sum up an internet-connected phone with access to all human knowledge as a “addictive distraction,” we are missing a big part of the picture. I often use my phone to take notes, or look something up that comes up in a conversation, or jot down an idea that comes up in a conversation. The phone enhances the experience rather than distracts from it. When we talk about phone usage, it’s important that we draw a line between the positive and productive use of phones and the negative and distracting use of phones.

Phones can and should enhance instruction. I have no problem with helping students realize the dark side of digital addiction and setting up systems to help students overcome addictive and unproductive use. But as educators, we can’t stop there. We are compelled to present the other side and develop opportunities for kids to use devices in a productive way.


Great video Ben! Thanks for sharing!

Don’t get me wrong, I think that cell phones could be one of the most remarkable ways to integrate and improve, and enhance curriculum. I mean, we have the entire world’s resources of knowledge and information right at our fingertips. Every possible answer to almost every question in the world is out there and all we have to do is read (or watch) something to discover the answers.

However, Simon Sinek hit’s the nail on the head when he equates the use of cell phones to drugs or alcohol. It’s a powerful addiction and any teacher that has been in the classroom over the last 5-10 years can tell you what a stranglehold it has on our students and how they are being affected as a result. I have seen firsthand the drastic increase in the number of students who have expressed depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, sleeplessness, and even loneliness.

Every time that I have tried to incorporate cell phones into the classroom has really just turned into students looking at social media or other unrelated websites. No matter how often you circulate the room or monitor the students, the temptation is too strong and the access is too easy for students to stay on task. Think of the teenage brain development and how the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is not yet developed. Since the PFC is so undeveloped teenagers are at the whim of their emotional brain, and as we know this part of the brain does not make the best decisions. Now we are taking the underdeveloped teenage brain and adding in a highly addictive cell phone that will shape how their brains move through these critical stages of development.

I guess in short, I feel that cell phones have not added to the learning environment as we (adults) have planned or hoped for since we are thinking about the issues rationally with fully developed logic and reasoning functions rather than from the viewpoint of a still developing brain.


One of the reasons I like my Kindle is that I can only read on it. No other distractions/notifications/temptations. So I totally get this.

But is it all of the students? I’ve seen classes where devices are integrated and yeah, some of the students lose track some of the time, but for the most part the majority stay on track and things go well. (I’m sure the study skills of the student matter a lot, too.)

I still go back to the idea that we’re setting our kids up to fail in college and work and life if somehow, some way, we can’t get to a place where our students can use an internet-connected digital device effectively in a meaningful learning activity.

As an aside, for me to even come close to using my phone well, I had to turn off 90% of the notifications from apps, etc. Without doing that, it’s just constant distractions. The only ones I’ve turned back on are certain email accounts (I was missing important email too frequently.) and my main text stream (pretty much only family communication).


Unfortunately there are more students who are distracted by their cell phones than those that are not. In every class there are about three students (roughly 10%) who do not show signs of cell phone distraction/addiction.

I think that your aside sums it up pretty well. Students would need to turn off all the other functions and apps in order to get the distractions out of their realm of awareness. Realistically for a teenager whose social life now revolves around an online persona, this is really just not going to happen. The students do have Chromebooks in class and full access to the internet so it’s not an issue of not being able to access the world of knowledge.

I do think that many of our students will learn to control their impulses and cell phone use in time; however their physiology needs to change before we can expect to see this responsible use. This is really no different from alcohol or other drugs. Simon Sinek equated the addictiveness of cell phones to these other vices simply because of the dopamine response, which no amount of redirection, thoughtful discussion, or engaging activities will cure or overpower.


Yeah, that’s a really good point. It does seem like Chromebooks would be a much better way to go. Having watched students who compulsive phone users try to actually get something done on their phone is a remarkably frustrating.

Part of me still clings to the idea that there is a better answer though, whether it’s helping kids become aware of the issue, or working with kids to get to a point where they can use phones well. With all that’s going on, it’s tough to put this one on a classroom teacher, but I feel like society is doing these kids a disservice if we’re not helping.

I also think the situation is more grave with students who are struggling in school. It’d be interesting to know if academic achievement scales inversely with cell phone addiction.


According to a recent study (2015) in the “Computers in Human Behavior” journal cell phone use does negatively affect GPA and increase anxiety. Although the study was performed on college students, I think that we could scale the study to our students. The article can be found under the creative commons license here:


Rob and Mike, it was great to read the thread since I posted the video. It’s clear this is an important discussion to be having. Devices have become such a massive, integral part of life – how is it not talked about more?!

My initial reaction to the Sinek interview was sort of similar to when you look at some of the more alarming portrayals of the implications of global climate change. Like, “holy crap, we’re doomed.” But after sleeping on it I do think he’s a bit fire and brimstone about the whole thing. Technology by definition is empowering and devices open up endless communication and collaboration possibilities, not to mention creative possibilities. I can think of ways my students use devices for good, particularly for communicating. For example, today during a break in class, one of my students called her manager at work to thank him for her new schedule. That wouldn’t have been possible “back in my day.”

I do feel a bit resentful that I’m inclined to lean towards a “back in my day” point of view. Everything in my educational philosophy pushes me towards a position that we shouldn’t suppress students’ phones. Like Mike said, we (and society) have to find ways to deal with it and push forward. But I keep coming back to the tightrope. Every day it’s like walking a really fine tightrope trying to get kids not to sacrifice precious moments of their education to Facebook. Every day I’m losing kids to Facebook. But seeing as how Facebook is specifically designed to auto-tune to their brainstems, I’m actually amazed by the half of the kids who do manage to put their phones away for long enough to student as best they can. I wonder about how much untapped intellectual potential I won’t see because virtually every time they should have a naturally occurring brain break, they check their phone.

As an aside: I have the QualityTime app on my phone, so whenever I want I can see how many times I unlocked my screen and how much time I spend on it. I’ve been using this app for many months, to where it is fully in the background - I’m no longer thinking about it or adjusting my habits much based on what it says. It’s interesting to examine your own device use and think about its role in your life. Today has been a good phone day. 53 screen unlocks, 36 minutes of use. Yesterday was a very bad phone day. I was sitting around watching NFL games and constantly checking Fantasy Football apps and Twitter. 142 unlocks. 3 hours 6 minute total use.


Keeping in the spirit of Sinek (Starting with Why), I’m wondering how we could get students to accept the information about what this constant access is doing to their brains.

This topic relates to addiction, depression, suicide, how they relate to people, job/relationship satisfaction, etc.

Just sharing the info with kids (as I tried to do last week) didn’t really go over so well. Kids think that research like that doesn’t apply to them and that they are special.

What kind of connection or emotional appeal can we make to students to get them to make the decision to put the devices down on their own?

What about watching things like the 60 Minutes story and having a discussion about it and what they want to do about it.

Here’s one from PBS News Hour

Here are some resources from the PBS Frontline episode Growing Up Online. I’m not sure it’s still available.
They had another one called Generation Like.

There is also Screenagers:


I showed the 60 Minutes piece to my own kids in the spring and they immediately were on board. The idea that larger companies were in any way attempting to control their lives immediately triggered the rebel in them, and they gained a better awareness of their own usage. They still use social media a lot, and still joke about dopamine rushes when they start responding to texts and whatnot, but I do think it gave them a greater and beneficial awareness of the larger picture, and helped them be better at their social media and notification choices.


The 60 minutes segment is great, thanks for sharing it, Jon. I think we had it posted in the thread earlier but videos were taken down.

With regard to teaching students on this stuff, here are some things:

Another instructor and I came up with four items we see as key “competencies” for students. They are:

  1. I can describe examples or situations that illustrate the “cost of multitasking.”

  2. I can discuss the value of being present in my important life roles (student, daughter/son, parent, etc.).

  3. I have a fact-based understanding of my own device use (how much time I spend, what I do, etc.).

  4. I am able to be (and/or choose to be) present during instructional time. I am able to be (or choose to be) focused when I need to optimize “work time.”

We have developed and are continuing to develop learning pathways to acquire these competencies. I will share some of those when I have a bit more time. Also - I’m not sure about the 4th competency…maybe someone has a better way to convey that.


Here is an instructional resource I’m developing for this competency. There are teacher instructions in the presenter notes.

I really liked this video:


Here’s a lesson I made for this. Again, teacher instructions are in the speaker notes.


Last thing on this for today (sorry for bombarding this thread so hard!). I was able to get in touch with the faculty at Hamline that held the “Breaking The Trance” summer institute this year. They shared with me their powerpoint from the institute. I just read them and am processing…yikes. The slides are filled with rich information and I probably need to read the book before commenting too much… Slides 28-33 may be a bit controversial as the authors detail how screen dependence may look like various learning disabilities and psychiatric conditions. Very interesting as a special education teacher.

Here is the book. It was also shared with me that Metro ECSU is working to bring the authors back for another event this year - specific date/location to be determined. I will share anything more I learn. For the record, these authors not only recommend that hand held devices be prohibited in classrooms, they believe that an assessment of screen dependence should be included in a student’s special education evaluation, and imply that screen dependence could even be a rule out factor for an educational disability.