Monday, June 7, 2010

Should Smart Phones Be Banned in Schools?

By Jacob Gutnicki

The rise of smart phones is undeniably a phenomenon, which continues to transform how we work, communicate, and play in the 21st century. Like the Internet before it, people across the globe are migrating to this technology at backbreaking speeds. We are also seeing these handheld devices being used in classrooms as science probes, photo editors, data entry tools, and of course for text/audio communications. In watching these feats of technological prowess, one cannot help but awe as we watch our motivated youth learning through these technologies. Additionally, there is no question that within 5-10 years the desktop computer will be obsolete and its users who cling to this relic from the past will be deemed the dinosaurs of technology. With this in mind, one would think supporting smart phone usage in the school system is a no brainer.

To this I say, “Not so fast!” In adapting any new technology (and even not so new technology) for classroom use, one must consider the following factors; educational benefits, risks, and child safety. Let us start by examining the last factor. According to recent surveys, 41% of children have been threatened via their smart phone. Even worse, smart phones along with its texting features are the preferred devices of teenage gangs. Subsequently, smart phones are being utilized to cheat in the classroom and to record/post inappropriate information about teachers. Smart phones are also being used by people who;

  • Pretend they are other people online to trick others
  • Spread lies and rumors about victims
  • Trick people into revealing personal information
  • Send or forward mean text messages
  • Post pictures of victims without their consent

Many educators have also complained that they are a disruption and cause students to easily get distracted. So does this mean smart phones should be banned? After all smart phones are also being used to;

  • Text-missed assignments to classmates that are absent
  • Perform math functions as the new math curricula encourages the use of a calculator for problem-solving
  • Take pictures of notes from the board

Many teenagers have also been known to use their smart phones in various situations that helped protect their safety. Additionally, a quick scan of the Innovative Educator web site reveals a myriad of effective practices already being used in which smart phone technology is being harnessed to empower and teach students. Never the less, every safety study on smart phone technology has reported the rise of cyber-bullying and other negative activities. Can we as educators ignore this looming danger? Does the cited danger validate a ban on smart phones within our school system? Is there a way to make smart phone use safer and acceptable in the school environment? For example, can an Acceptable User Policy help the situation? These are not easy questions to answer. Having said that, here are a few more thoughts on this perplexing matter.

For the time being those who are pro smart phone and those who do not support its use will stick with their position and will not stray from their point of view. However, regardless of one’s standpoint, it is clear that no child should be allowed to use a smart phone within a school setting without signing an Acceptable User Policy. The Acceptable User Policy should require students to attend a minimum of 2 smart phone safety seminars in which they learn about lurking dangers and how to handle those situations. Additionally, an Acceptable User Policy should require students to;

  • Register their smart phone with the local law enforcement.
  • Understand that they can only send appropriate text, email, or picture messages.
  • Understand that they should not give their address or other personal information on a phone call, text, or email to people they do not know, or if others can hear them.
  • Understand that they should never respond to an email, text, picture, or voice message from someone they don’t know.
  • Agree that they will inform an adult they trust if they receive anything on their phone—a call, a text message, an e-mail, a picture, or voicemail message that makes them uncomfortable.
  • Delineate which applications and web sites are appropriate for school use.

Finally, the use of Smart Phones is an earned privilege with the understanding that students will lose their device and other privileges if they violate any of the above rules.

If a school or district promotes an anti smart phone policy, the topic of Cyber Bullying should still be addressed at least twice a year. After all, Cyber Bullying is a problem that is not limited to smart phones. This is evident as a recent survey conducted by the National Crime Prevention Council reported that 43% of middle school students;

  • received an e-mail or an instant message that made them upset
  • had something posted on a social networking site that made them upset
  • had been made fun of in a chat room
  • had something posted on a Web site that made them upset
  • had something posted online that they did not want others to see
  • were afraid to go on the computer

Subsequently, I urge all schools and districts to review their technology policy and examine if their plan adequately addresses the rise of Cyber Bullying and make the appropriate adaptations if needed. For more information visit; and


  1. The job of school is to prepare students for success in the world in which they live. If we aren't preparing them to use the tools they own and use outside of school in educational, effective, and appropriate ways, then what world are we preparing them for?

    If potential inappropriate use is a reason for banning, then we must follow suit and ban students from expressing themselves. The phone is just one vehicle. Others include verbal speech and speech on paper. If we want our children to be completely safe then we won't let them speak, think, or write. Problem solved.

  2. The point of this post is to raise awareness of the contrasting views on this issue. As you know there are many good reasons to promote Smart Phone use. The same could be said for the opposing point of view. I believe that understanding the safety issues involved can help promote safer use of Smart Phones as well as the Internet.

  3. @Jacob, I agree that safety issues should be addressed but the fallacy is that banning solves the safety issue. We should be preparing students for the world in which they live. Even if schools decide to run a school where students are banned from using 21st century tools, that doesn't mean that schools are now NOT responsible for preparing students or addressing issues of life in the real world.

    Banning doesn't solve the safety issue. It just results in students being more ill-prepared and less safe in their 21st century lives.

  4. While I agree with some of your points, you hit a couple of sore points.
    First your point about cyberbullying is important but remember it is not the smartphone doing the bullying it is another student. We need to work with children constantly to eliminate bullying. Your point is the same as suggesting we should get rid of recess because 62% of kids reported being bullied at recess.
    The other point that cheesed me was your point "the use of Smart Phones is an earned privilege". Either we see this as another tool that students could use or we don't. Is the paper and pen also an earned privelege that we can also take away.

    You do raise many good points of which the most important is the need to educate students on the potential dangers of smartphone use...we can put our heads in the sand or we can help students use these tools properly.

  5. @Neil Langevin, well said. I agree!
    @Jacob Gutnicki, thank you for this thought-provoking post!

  6. Ultimately a school can't prevent these unpleasant events from happening. My argument is that we prepare students to deal with them much more effectively by utilizing all of these tools in a productive way. If a student's only experience with chat or message boards are the general wastelands of "no particular purpose" chatrooms and message boards, they don't have a reference to help them deal with "crap", for lack of a better word.
    But if students are accustomed to discussing literature or shop projects or ideas in chat rooms or message boards, and are familiar with constructive, worthwhile conversations, it's clear to them when someone is being useless, and they have other places to go.
    Schools have the opportunity to own and police a substantial communications forum for little money and modest effort - to, in essence, provide a useful interesting place for students to interact and learn the skills safely and with reasonable protection. Once you've experienced that, you only venture out of it for specific reasons, and you venture prepared.

  7. Innovative Educator- I agree with you. Ban or no ban, schools need to teach children social responsibility.

    Neil- I think your point about focusing on the bully rather than the Smart Phone is well taken and right on point. Having said that, my point is to raise awareness of how large the cyber bullying problem is. Does this mean we ban the technology. Well... that's a decision each school has to make. I also understand that you did not like the concept of "the earned privilege". Perhaps my wording was not the best. To this end, I ask you the following question;

    Suppose a student cyber bullies someone or cheats on a test using a smart phone? What are the consequences for these unlawful actions?

    Andy- You make some great points about ownership and social responsibility.

  8. Jacob,

    Your cause to raise awareness of bullying is important.

    To answer your question, the consequences for these actions should be the same as the school/district would have for bullying or cheating.

    Again, we need to focus on the negative action and not the tool used. Banning tools is irresponsible, fruitless and time consuming.

  9. Neil, I do not advocate for either a ban or no ban view. I do advocate that local schools and/or districts develop an Acceptable User Policy. In developing a policy, one needs to understand the perspective of both camps and then craft an appropriate policy. I also agree with you that we must focus on the action and not the technology.

    This is why I stated, "For the time being those who are pro smart phone and those who do not support its use will stick with their position and will not stray from their point of view. However, regardless of one’s standpoint, it is clear that no child should be allowed to use a smart phone within a school setting without signing an Acceptable User Policy."
    Perhaps a bit of context will help.

  10. I agree with Jacob, If smart phones are use properly there will be no problem about it. Also, students can use those phones for emergency. Well I think it would be better if school districts could set their own policy for using it like setting a time when you can open and use your cellphones. It could be during recess and before dismissal time.

  11. "If potential inappropriate use is a reason for banning, then we must follow suit and ban students from expressing themselves."

    This is what happens when tech zealots see phones as something more than a means to make simple calls.

  12. i vote for yes really they should be but they whouldnt coz i am using it lol

  13. Policies, procedures and regulations, regardless how needed, well-crafted and well-intended, are useless without creating a culture that promotes respect and trust among all stake holders. Most people of influence, although called "leaders", either don't know about it or don't care. Smart phones, computers, internet are not the reason for negative behavior but rather they reveal all that has been wrong all along. We have been focusing on keeping up the appearances of having sound educational institutions rather than honestly discussing what has been going on. Schools that don't practice social responsibility among adults, can not teach it to their students. Schools where adults bully each other behind a wall of shallow politeness can't teach students how not to be a bully. Schools where spreading rumors and lies goes on daily can't teach honesty to students. Schools where teachers and administrators are unprepared for(and uninterested) in the 21st century can not prepare their students for it. As long as the people with the least knowledge and insight into fixing this are in charge, nothing will change. Leadership is usually THE problem and can always be the solution. All we need to do is to start asking the right questions.

  14. There are many nuances to this debate and there is not one correct answer. Cell phones whether smart phones or not can be used for educational purposes. They also can be used to cyberbully and cheat on examinations. I taught a class this year that focused on promoting digital citizenship in middle school students and as part of our curriculum we focused on how cell phones could be used in a positive manner. Many of the students enjoyed what we did and in a small semi-rural district where nearly 75% of our 7-8 grade students had cell phones I learned a few things too.

    Not all students have smart phones but I was quite frankly surprised at the overall quality and capability of the majority of the phones my students possessed. One seventh grade student had a Blackberry Storm and most recently I had an 8th grade student who had a Verizon Droid. A fairly high percentage also had iPod Touch devices and other wireless devices like PSPs.

    It is possible to incorporate cell phones in instructional settings that have only SMS or MMS capability. Smart phones are not required to integrate cellular phones.

  15. Don, you first sentence truly captures the essence of this debate that indeed "there is not one correct answer". I also agree with the anonymous that leadership can be the problem and/or be the solution. Eva, I am glad you found this useful.
    Mark, it is amazing how these little technological Smart Phones have changed our world. Who would have ever thought that devices that promote 2 finger typing would catch on.
    Kidding aside, the city of NY just put out a video that I thought that explains the hidden dangers of the internet and Smart Phones at

  16. " it is clear that no child should be allowed to use a smart phone within a school setting without signing an Acceptable User Policy."

    Really? Even if it is their own device on their carrier's network with no connection to district technology at all? I see that as part of the school discipline policies as they related to other student behaviors that can disrupt the educational process but I'm not going to try and control private devices on private networks from a district policy level. Doesn't seem practical or necessary.

  17. The word "ban" usually refers to whole school policy. Why not let individual teachers make the call?
    If you have a purposeful use, why tell someone they can't use it? At the same time if you've not figured out how any tool/resource can help learning, then they indeed they are a distraction and unless that teacher either receives some support or discovers the value, it's not worth the fight. Let classroom teachers decide what tools and resources will best meet the goals of learning in their classroom.

  18. For Anonymous- The debate of controlling private devices in a school setting has always been a delicate issue. Perhaps a bit of context will help clarify why an "Acceptable User Policy" is critical. From time to time I get the phone call involving students using the Internet for questionable activities. Subsequently, I visit the school and investigate how computers are used.

    Sadly, schools with issues generally have a non-existent policy. On the other hand, schools with a set policy tend to have far fewer issues. Their issues also tend to be benign. For this reason I advocate for an "Acceptable User Policy".

    Dean your idea is intriguing.

  19. This is a real problem for us in higher education, as well, especially since we have much less control over what students do in, say, a 300-seat lecture hall. Some instructors actually turn off the wi-fi in the room to discourage surfing and texting on smartphones and other devices. But that sort of combative attitude doesn't seem to foster a trusting relationshp between instructors and students, so like you suggest, some of our instructors are also trying to do the "if you can't beat them, join them" approach.

    We have a little blog post on this over here, with some discussion of what some of us are trying to do in higher education.

  20. @Jacob gutnicki Thank you for such a thought-provoking post. Like many of the others have mentioned, I believe our responsibility is to teach our students how to use their smartphones in positive ways. With smartphones in hand, our students have the ability to communicate with the world, raise awareness about important issues, draw attention to perceived injustices, share and challenge ideas and engage in collaborative problem-solving.

    You raise some important points for all of us to consider about ensuring student safety. It is crucial that we teach kids how to protect themselves while online, regardless of what device they are using.

    When it comes to students using their smartphones to help them complete an assignment, I don't necessarily think this is a bad idea. If they are using it to work on a math problem, the use of a smartphone could be a positive application of the technology. If a student learns the process of solving a mathematical problem, shouldn't they be encouraged to use their phone to execute the calculation? Wouldn't this be a practical application?

    As for cheating, phones definitely pose new challenges that previously didn't exist to the same extent. What this points out to me is that if students can access and share information so quickly and easily on their phones, we must re-think the types of challenges we pose for our students. We need to move beyond the recall of information and move in the direction of critical thinking, creativity and collaborative problem-solving where the use of smartphones in the classroom may be encouraged rather than feared.

    Banning smartphones would only mean our students would be learning in environments out of context compared to their real worlds. Deciding when, where and how students can utilize smartphones to enhance their learning is the important question for us all to answer.

  21. Absolutely, without question. Ban smartphones, tablets, laptops/netbooks etc. in primary/secondary schools. These children and young teens have absolutely no discipline at all and will use the device to text or browse the web, while the teacher is instructing. They could care less about being rude, and unfortunately are so used to these devices,that they don't actually understand why it is rude. It's called discipline and the current generation of children could use a large dose of it.

    Once in post-secondary school (college/university), feel free to waste your life away texting people, while missing out on the lecture.