Schools Took Away Students’ Phones. Now They’re Treating Separation Anxiety
Compromises include letting young people see their devices from afar or hold them in a locked pouch
Jan. 20, 2020 1:40 pm ET
Before class each day, a high-school teacher in Indianapolis grabs a clear plastic bag and fastens it to her waist with a ribbon. The homemade pouch is a repository for phones that are either confiscated or handed over voluntarily by students who don’t want to be tempted to tap or swipe during class.
She calls it the “phoney pack,” and the magic of the makeshift vault isn’t that it keeps devices out of reach. It’s that it lowers students’ anxiety by keeping their phones in view.
Smartphones have long been a scourge for teachers and administrators, who have employed a range of strict measures to keep them out of the classroom. But it turns out that getting rid of phones introduced another distraction: withdrawal pangs.
Now, teachers across the country are testing their own methods for managing their students’ phone-related angst. Some use lockable pouches that let students hold their phones rather than having to leave them alone in their lockers. Others have set up charging stations in classrooms, betting that the visibility and value of a charge will keep students at ease. Then there are the teachers who have decided dangling extra credit and other prizes is the best defense against phone withdrawal.
Students don’t always appreciate the efforts to appease them.
South Bronx Early College Academy Charter School in New York decided two years ago that making students leave their phones in their lockers wasn’t working: Scofflaws sneaked out of class to use them. So the school bought a bunch of locking, foamlike pouches from a company called Yondr that also markets its devices to theaters that want to prevent audience members from filming performances. The students can keep their phones with them but can’t access them without a special magnetic unlocking mechanism.
The school lets students decorate their pouches, to “make them as cool as humanly possible for something that’s restricting them from their device,” says principal Brian Blough.
During the first few weeks, students were “fiending” while waiting in line at the end of the day for the teacher to unlock their pouches, Mr. Blough says.
Eighth-grader Olamide Oladitan and some of his fellow students tried to pry and cut open their pouches with objects like pens and scissors. “It didn’t work,” Mr. Oladitan says.
In some of the more extreme hacks proliferating on YouTube videos, people have gone as far as setting the pouches on fire.
Mr. Oladitan says he eventually gave in. “I didn’t like it because I really wanted to get to my phone,” he says, “but at the same time I didn’t hate it because it helped me get better grades.”
Some schools have opted for the carrot over the stick. At High Point Academy Fort Worth in Texas, students in Jayne Lawrence’s English and creative writing classes download an app called Pocket Points that tracks when they touch their phones. Students can redeem points for different tiers of awards that kick in at 10, 15 and 24 class hours off the phone, earning prizes ranging from a drink at Starbucks to the ability to drop their worst test score.
Ms. Lawrence says the system is worth it because it gives her a way to combat students’ addiction without confrontation.
“The quickest way here to burn a relationship is to take something from them,” she says.
When Joseph Riffle’s school in Fairborn, Ohio, allowed teachers to set their own rules on devices, he realized his policy of letting kids keep phones on their desks as long as they didn’t use them was just too tempting. He also knew he couldn’t take the phones too far, considering they’re the most expensive thing some of the students own.
So the 32-year-old teacher purchased boxes with USB plugs on Amazon.com and set up a table near the front of his class where his sophomore American Studies students could charge their devices—and gaze at them from a distance. The expectation was “you turn in and you plug in,” he says.
The charging system worked for about three years until the school required phones to be put away all day.
Some schools say confiscating devices at the start of each day is the only way to block all phone-related distractions and others threaten to put students’ phones in a locked “cell block,” hoping the fear of loss will lead to compliance.
Parents at Roosevelt High School in Seattle sent administrators dozens of thank-you notes and emails in 2018 when they announced the school would require cellphones to be put away in a bag or locker for the day. The school had previously allowed individual teachers to set their own rules.
“Some teachers were feeling like the bad guy and others were feeling like it was a free-for-all,” says Delaney Ruston, a parent who once made a film about families and screen time called “Screenagers.”
When DREAM Charter High School in New York opened three years ago, teachers collected its roughly 100 students’ phones in homeroom each day, a task that became unwieldy as the school’s population grew to 300.
DREAM now uses a “Harry Potter-like” system that allows students to earn points that give them privileges such as being able to hold on to their phone rather than having to lock them in a Yondr pouch, principal Jared Francis says. Students earn credit for good grades and actions such as persisting through challenges that help them achieve “prefect status,” a reference to the Hogwarts students who earn special privileges.
Mr. Francis says the school’s policy is aimed at teaching responsibility. “In the real world no one is confiscating my phone, but I use it a lot and I have to learn how to manage that,” he says.