Banning smartphones is the smart move, say these Catholic schools

(OSV News) — After St. Mary’s High School in Colorado Springs, Colorado, launched its inaugural school year in 1885 — staffed by the Sisters of Loretto and planted on the front range of the Rockies under Pikes Peak — generations have passed through its doors going through students’ typical challenges to scholastic success and emotional well-being: lost homework; forgotten textbooks; maybe even a bully or two.

But now schools are finding students face a new typical challenge: cellphones.

St. Mary’s High School confronts cellphone challenge

“Dress codes have always been a challenge in Catholic schools,” Thomas Maj, president of St. Mary’s, told OSV News. “But phones became a bigger one.”

Maj dates the “explosion” of student cellphone use to approximately 2005. In May of that year, Maj — who has been a Catholic school administrator for 25 years — said he could easily count the number of kids who had one. By the next year, it was easier to count those who didn’t.

“You see the social deprivation; you see the sleep deprivation; you see attention fragmentation in class; you see the addictions; you see how social media harms girls more than it does boys,” said Maj, inventorying detriments before concluding, “Something had to give.”

Implementing a cellphone ban

While the decision to ban student cellphone use at St. Mary’s was gradual, in August 2023, Maj recalled, “We just said, ‘OK — enough is enough.’”

St. Mary’s 150 students are allowed to keep their cellphones in their backpack or locker, but the device must be shut off and cannot be taken out during school.

“Nobody really made an issue of it,” said Maj, perhaps as surprised as he was pleased at both student and parent reactions.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 76.1% of schools have policies that prohibit cellphones at school for nonacademic use. A 2023 study by Common Sense Research showed policies can vary not only from school to school, but classroom to classroom, and are inconsistently enforced. It found 43% of children ages 8 to 12, and 88%-95% of children ages 13-18 have their own smartphone; half of U.S. children get their first smartphone at 11.

Still, there are signs that educators and lawmakers are concerned enough to impose stricter measures.

On June 18, the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District — the nation’s second-largest school district — voted 5-2 that students won’t be allowed to use cellphones during the school day. In New York — where New York City boasts the largest U.S. school district — Gov. Kathy Hochul will introduce legislation in January 2025, allowing students to carry only phones that have no internet access.

In July 2023, a law took effect in Florida requiring public schools to ban student cellphone use during class time, and block access to social media on school district Wi-Fi. In their 2024 legislative sessions, Oklahoma, Vermont and Kansas introduced similar “phone-free schools” statutes.

The role of mental health concerns

“I think the pendulum is swinging back,” observed Maj. “Parents are beginning to understand the consequences — and they’re more than happy to let schools be the heavy in making these decisions.”

“My number one concern today,” declared Maj, “is mental health.”

It’s a worry shared by Father Kyle Metzger, principal of Shanley High School in Fargo, North Dakota.

“In a decade,” Father Metzger predicted, “mobile phones will be largely prohibited in schools. But,” he added, “it’s going to take schools coming to terms with that.”

Father Metzger, who just finished his third year as principal at Shanley, drafted his school’s cellphone policy himself, after discussions began in weekly faculty meetings. It was announced to Shanley’s 310 students and their parents in April 2023.

“In the end,” Father Metzger said, “the consensus was it’s our responsibility as educators to bring order to this disordered part of students’ lives.”

Shanley student phones must be left in the car, or put in a backpack or locker — shut off and stored until students leave in the afternoon. If a phone can be seen, it will be surrendered to the school’s front office for 24 hours. Parents who need to reach students can call the front office — which, as Father Metzger wryly observed, “seemed to work for generations.”

Positive outcomes of the cellphone ban

With the ban in effect, changes were immediately noticeable.

“From day one, the volume during lunch periods was elevated. The kids were talking; they were interacting with each other; they were laughing. There was a substantial reduction in students leaving class to check their text messages,” shared Father Metzger. “Teachers also did see an increase in student engagement — discussions and asking questions. All of those distractions were put to the side, so that they could just focus on the lesson.”

The cellphone policy has been, Father Metzger said, “wildly successful.”

“You no longer can deny the negative impact that mobile devices and social media has on teenagers,” he stressed. “And at a certain point, administrations will have to make very deliberate decisions to moderate that teenage behavior.”

On June 17, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy urged Congress to require a tobacco-style health warning for visitors to social media platforms.

Nationwide support for cellphone moratoriums

At Nolan Catholic High School in Fort Worth, Texas, principal Oscar Ortiz agrees with a nationwide school cell phone moratorium — but he also wants administrators contemplating their own policy to root it in positivity.

“It should not be a reactionary thing where we just tell students that this is wrong,” explained Ortiz. “They should see it is an actual shift towards the things that are good for them, as opposed to running away from the things that are bad for them. Although it’s a very fine distinction, it’s a very important one.”

At Nolan — which has served the Fort Worth community for 62 years, and educates 550 students — cellphones aren’t allowed at all during the day; they must be stored in lockers, and students can’t use devices during breaks. A small fine is paid if a phone is confiscated.

“We said, if we’re going to do it, let’s not do it incrementally — let’s just go all out,” Ortiz said. “If we really believe and are committed to the intellectual, the spiritual and the emotional growth of our students, then let’s show that.”

The impact at Nolan since the 2022-2023 school year also has been evident.

Revitalized school and home environments

“Like a lot of the schools that do this, again, our lunchrooms, our hallways, and our classrooms have all been revitalized as a result of the changes,” Ortiz reflected, “with much more involved, attentive, and talkative students.”

Even the pep rallies are louder — and parents also are pleased.

“The students — because they were off the phone eight hours a day, during the school day — came home and no longer felt the need to continue on it,” Ortiz explained. One parent “described it as getting their child back — and seeing how, at the dinner table, there was more conversation; there was more interaction with their teenager.”

While school administrators may experience some pushback, it will be worth it, Ortiz said.

“What we discovered was, when we remove cell phones, students finally enter a space where they can be children again,” he emphasized. “They can be things that they hadn’t been because they’re always worried that they’re being watched; recorded; photographed,” said Ortiz. “That was another great thing that we experienced here.”

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