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As Westport schools weigh cellphone ban, expert says use 'can negatively impact student learning'

Journal Inquirer - 6/16/2024

Jun. 16—WESTPORT — As discussions grow about banning student cellphone use during the school day, including in Westport, research is showing exactly how the devices can affect youth and impede learning.

"Cellphone use during school hours can negatively impact student learning," Joseph DeLuca, a clinical psychologist and Fairfield University professor, said. "In general, humans are notoriously bad at multitasking."

The Connecticut General Assembly considered proposed legislation during its last session that would have banned all cellphone use in schools, and Gov. Ned Lamont in his State of the State address encouraged schools to lock away cellphones during the school day. In other school districts in the state, Manchester recently banned cellphone use for middle schoolers.

Many people believe they are able to multitask effectively and safely, but the research is clear that it impairs performance, said DeLuca, who specializes in adolescent and young adult mental health. An assistant professor in Fairfield University'sDepartment of Psychological and Brain Sciences, he has conducted research in digital technology and therapy and his clinical psychological work mainly focuses on young people.

"In schools, using phones during class can impede students' learning because it takes their attention away from what their teacher is saying or writing," he said. "This can inhibit deeper learning processes, and phone use may even distract other peers."

Citing statistics

A recent study showed that 96 percent of public schools in grades 6 to 12 have policies surrounding cellphone use, DeLuca said, with most of those banning it during class, transition times and lunch.

"Although school phone bans have existed for decades, such bans are probably becoming more common around the world because more and more youth have access to smartphones," he said. "Although it is a complicated picture, new research is also demonstrating that consistent phone use may have damaging effects on students' learning and mental health in some cases."

By age 11, more than half of children have a smartphone, DeLuca said, citing research from multiple sources, including Common Sense Media and Pew Research Center. By high school, nearly all teenagers have access to smartphones. Generally, students use cellphones to access social media during school hours.

DeLuca referred to research showing that, on average, teenagers receive over 200 phone notifications each day, about a quarter of which occur during school hours, he added. About two-thirds of public high school teachers and a third of middle school teachers say cellphone distraction is a major problem for students.

An idea in Westport

In May, Superintendent Thomas Scarice brought up a discussion about prohibiting cellphone use for all grade levels. At the June 6Board of Education meeting, Scarice said a ban would not happen this fall because he wanted to hear from the school community on the idea.

Students report a range of experiences in using cellphones in Westport schools, but they are mainly causing distractions and causing a majority of disciplinary matters, Scarice said in an interview.

He noted the effect is greater at the middle and high school levels, and consequences are outlined in the code of conduct for each school.

"I have strong beliefs about the impact of cellphones and wearable technology, namely that these devices are engineered to foster addiction, and their software and applications have been monetized at the expense of our children and the wider public," Scarice said.

Parents of elementary and middle school children tend to support restrictions on student cellphone and wearable technology use during the school day, he said. However, there are some opposing viewpoints for high school parents, which is why he wants to raise the topic to the community level, before any final decisions are made.

Currently, in Westport, all student-owned technology is prohibited for elementary schoolers. In middle school, students may keep technology in their lockers or backpacks. In high school, students may use their technology during lunch or free periods, but it must be put away during instructional time. Any new regulations could follow the tiered approach, Scraice said.

If a full restriction were implemented, the district would consider using Yondr, a type of magnetic pouch that locks phones away, which would cost about $30 per student, he said.

A prohibition on phone use would be a school regulation and would not necessarily need a vote of approval by the Board of Education, Scarice said. However, in matters with wide school community interest, he said he likes to provide a recommendation and seek board support.

If the board doesn't support his recommendation, it could write a policy, he said.

"It is a polarizing topic and as a parent of teenage children, I fully understand the perspectives," Scarice said.

Effects on the brain

In adolescence, the brain is sensitive to social and emotional influences, DeLuca said. The brain's prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision-making and planning, but it is not yet developed so adolescents may engage in impulsive and recurrent phone use, he said.

"This is a really critical period of brain development, and research on the relation between cellphone use and the brain is emerging," he said.

A recent study on middle schoolers found a link between checking social media and changes in an area of the brain associated with social rewards, he added, saying more research is needed on the topic.

"Overall, I believe that if these phone restrictions can be paired with clear rationales and digital literacy and safety initiatives, we can increase buy-in," DeLuca said.

Clinical and developmental psychology research shows children are typically most responsive to policy changes such as cellphone bans when they are educated about why the restrictions are happening and how such changes can be beneficial, rather than focusing solely on the potential harms, he added.

"Giving them concrete tools to stay safe online and support their peers can be empowering and lead to better communication with caregivers and other trusted adults," he said.

Healthy phone habits

With the problems associated with cellphone use, DeLuca said he hopes to see improved policies.

"We have the psychological science to guide us here, as well as many caring school professionals and caregivers," he said.

One such possibility is through teensandtech.org, DeLuca said, which provides free videos and resources for students and guardians to learn about digital media.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that guardians encourage healthy screentime habits starting at a young age, calling on adults and children to turn off screens during dinner and outings, using parental controls and prohibiting cellphone use an hour before bedtime.

For social media use, the American Psychological Association recommends monitoring use from ages 10 to 14 to ensure safe engagement with the platforms. This could include social media limits and open discussions about refraining from social comparisons, such as appearance-related content, DeLuca said.

However, DeLuca said smartphones and social media are not all bad. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, cellphones and social media have allowed young people to connect, he said.

"Of course, there are caveats and some aspects and uses of digital technology can be detrimental," he said, such as during class. "But it is a complicated picture. We also need to have flexibility in such policies for students with jobs and/or family responsibilities."

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