#phonefreeschools – How to Talk to Your School District about Removing Smartphones

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#phonefreeschools – How to Talk to Your School District about Removing Smartphones

I’m often asked how I feel about smartphones in schools.

It happened again. Another internet safety presentation where I was put on the spot to answer a question about kids having personal devices in school. This time, it came from the principal of the high school where I was speaking, in front of around 200 parents.

No pressure.

Actually, it’s a question I’m very confident answering because based on the research, the answer is simple.

Kids learn better without the distractions of smartphones

(Just ask Forest Hills Schools in Ada, Michigan. 19,000+ students and no smartphones. Behavioral referrals are down. Kid mental health is improved. Keep reading!)

Common pushbacks from schools who don’t want to remove smartphones during the school day.

1. It’s too difficult to enforce.

Step back. Which is more difficult? Dealing with kids always on their devices in your building, perpetuating the previous night’s issues, or allowing those issues to settle while devices (and fewer notifications) are in the lockers? Talk to any principal who has created a phone-free policy. They’ll tell you it’s a myth.

2. Parents will push back. They want to be in touch 24/7.

According to a survey performed by Dr. Delaney Ruston’s Screenagers group, 82% of parents don’t want devices in the school. Don’t let the minority change your mind.

3. If there’s a lockdown, parents want to know their kid is safe.

This one is difficult. I’m a dad. I definitely want to know where my kids are. But, in a very rare lockdown situation, my child’s cell phone use could actually make him/her less safe.

According to an NPR article, a security expert named Ken Trump says phones can actually make us less safe in a crisis. Reasons include:

  • Using phones can distract people from the actions they need to be taking in the moment, such as running, hiding, and listening to directions from first responders.
  • The sound of the phone, whether ringing or on vibrate, could alert an assailant to a hiding place.
  • The shooters could be monitoring the event themselves on social media and find more victims or elude capture that way.
  • Victims and worried family members trying to get through can jam communications, interfering with first responders.
  • Students can spread misinformation.

It’s far more likely that a student is contacted by a predator or watches hardcore porn on their phone, but the once-in-a-million chance their school is on lockdown definitely sits front of mind.

We shared our thoughts related to active shooter situations, kids, and devices in an Instagram post and on Facebook. The response was very interesting.

4. Kids will feel less stressed if they can check their phones.

When you talk to school leaders with away-for-the-day policies who have talked to their students, they’re amazed to hear that students actually have fewer notifications at the end of the day and feel MORE relaxed during the day because there’s nothing to miss out on. Additionally, spending time face-to-face counteracts isolation, depressive feelings, and loneliness. Check out this story from the superintendent of Forest Hills Public Schools – an 8th grader completely sold him on removing smartphones.

5. Students need their phones to use as mini computers.

This is such a slippery slope. The mere presence of a smartphone in the classroom hinders academic performance. It’s said that students check their phones up to 150 times per day. Multitasking is a neurological myth! See our downloadable PDF for specific references.

6. Students need their phones for IEP/504 or medical situations. 

Yes, we agree. Exceptions can be made and there should be processes and training for these limited but important situations. This statement was shared in a closed Facebook group where parents were commenting on the idea of an “away for the day” policy:

I have a child on a 504 and she has a “chill pass” accommodation where she gives the pass to the teacher, retrieves her phone and goes to the counselors office to contact me. That’s a perfectly acceptable anxiety accommodation.

I want my School District to Remove Phones. What Should I do?

 #1 – Do your research.

We’ve created a free, PDF with loads of research to support your cause, sorted by category. Download it today!

#2 – Find like-minded parents.

Start conversations on the sidelines and look for friends in the cause. They’re out there. They just might not have the courage to speak up. Listen to their stories. What’s happening on the school bus or playground that might support your cause? Are kids showing each other inappropriate things? We hear stories from these parents regularly at PYE.

#3 – Request a meeting with your child’s principal (the administrator for the building).

The purpose of this meeting is to let the principal know exactly what you’re asking for and why you’re asking for it. This is your practice run. If you need to go to the superintendent or school board, you need to be prepared, and this conversation will help you do that. Be passionate but be calm. Never defensive. Take the high road at every turn. Here’s a rough agenda:

  • Share your research [give him/her a copy of our PDF]. Print three copies of our PDF – make your notes on one, leave two behind.
  • Be very clear that you are asking for an “away for the day” policy for personal internet-ready devices. Point to example policies in the back of the PDF (and that is just a taste). 
  • If there’s agreement, wonderful! Ask when you can expect movement.
  • If there’s disagreement, ask for their reasoning, in writing if possible.
  • Also if there’s disagreement, let the principal know that you will be meeting next with the superintendent, sharing the research, sharing the results of this meeting, and asking to present to the entire school board.

#4 – Meet with the superintendent.

In preparation for the meeting, go to the district’s website and find the mission statement. Every district has one. They range in what they say, but most have similar principles:

  • Create life-long learners.
  • Be an exceptional, continuously improving learning culture.
  • To provide a safe teaching and learning environment.
  • To produce students with the academic and social skills to be successful in a global society.

(All of these statements come from real district mission and vision statements)

Look for ways to weave the district’s mission statement into what you say.

At this meeting, do the following:

  • Be calm but passionate. You’re likely a mom reading this. It’s about kids. Speak from the heart.
  • Share your research [give him/her a copy of our PDF]. Print three copies of our PDF – make your notes on one, and leave two behind.
  • Be very clear that you are asking for an “away for the day” policy for personal internet-ready devices. Point to example policies in the back of the PDF (and that is just a taste). 
  • Bring a very tangible case study – Forest Hills Public Schools near Grand Rapids, MI. Over 10,000 students. No visible smartphones during the day K-12. Print two copies of the post – leave both behind.
  • Request that you and your group be put on the agenda for a presentation at an upcoming board meeting.
  • Let him/her know that you’re not alone (because you’ve found a like-minded tribe in #2) and that you’re serious about finding a solution that puts the education and protection of kids first. This is where you mention the district’s own mission statement, stating that it is not possible for the district to achieve its own mission while students are allowed to bring personal smart devices into classrooms, eat, and hang out places.

#5 – Attend a school board meeting. Just to observe (and get comfortable). 

Actually, there are two purposes to attending a school board meeting. First, so that you can see how the meetings go. If you’re not sure when they are, visit your district website. Schools are required to post the meeting schedule. The second purpose is to shake a few hands of board members and introduce yourself. You might ask, “What are your thoughts about kids having personal electronic devices?” Do not engage in a debate. Listen, nod your head, and smile a lot.

#6 – Present to the entire school board.

By now, you’re a practiced pro at delivering your case. Find out how long you’re allowed to present and make sure what you end up saying complies with this requirement. In other words, practice it.

Here’s an example speech that could be used. It has been written using a number of different sources. Please feel free to copy, paste, and customize however you see fit. No need to reference PYE while speaking, but if you see an opportunity for PYE to help your school, we would be honored if you would tell school leadership about us:

My sweet 15-year-old daughter had this disgusting song shown and sung to her at lunch: “Bust that P*ssy Open” (TikTok video) [insert your own story here]

This is just a fraction of the disgusting and distracting content that is being watched and shared on smartphones at schools.

The mission statement of [insert name] Public Schools is: [insert mission statement]. It is my assertion that the mere presence of personal, smart devices in the classroom makes it impossible for our District to achieve this(these) outcome(s). And peer-reviewed research is on my side.

When was the last time you paid in order to check your Facebook account? Or had to pay a fee to watch a YouTube video. Never, right? So, how do these organizations make money? How is it that Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Facebook, and TikTok have become companies with over a trillion dollars of market value?

Because they’ve monetized our attention. They’re all fighting for the attention of our children. They created features that cause tweens and teens to become addicted to attention. How many likes can I get? How beautiful can I make my photo? How many views can I get for my video? How many people saw my Story?

The mere presence of smart devices within the reach of students impacts their academic performance. A study by the London School of Economics looked at the test performance of 130,000 students in 91 UK schools in 2015 that banned cell phones, concluding that national exam scores improved by 6% following the ban, and 14% among underachieving students.1

This is one of many studies showing that the negative impacts that portable, non-Edtech devices have on learning and mental health are significant. I’ve made copies of this PDF with additional research for your viewing later [hand out our PDF].

These devices don’t care about your mission. They don’t care about the mental health or education of our young people. So why would you allow them into your classrooms, robbing you of your ability to achieve your stated goals?

The following is an excerpt from testimony given by Tristan Harris, the co-founder of the Center for Human Technology, in front of the US House of Representatives:

“After nearly two decades in decline, “high depressive” symptoms for 13-18-year-old teen girls rose 170% between 2010 – 2017 which researchers such as NYU sociologist Jonathan Haidt link directly to social media.2 Tech products using beautification filters like Snapchat have led to “Body Dysmorphic Disorder” – where people’s self-image is distorted by beautification filters, is harming mental health. In a survey of plastic surgeons, 55% said they’d seen patients whose primary motivation was to look better in selfies, up from 13% in 2016.3 On YouTube, two years ago if a teen girl searched for “dieting” videos, the recommendation systems would recommend “anorexia” videos because they were better at keeping attention.”4

A recent Common Sense Media report from 2022 titled, Teens and Pornography found that 41% of those surveyed reported seeing pornography during the school day and 44% of these teens reported viewing pornography on school-owned devices.

In May 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory, “Social Media and Youth Mental Health.” Such advisories are “reserved for significant public health challenges that require the nation’s immediate awareness and action. Based on a substantial review of the available evidence.” He went on to say,

“Our children and adolescents don’t have the luxury of waiting years until we know the full extent of social media’s impact. Their childhoods and development are happening now,” the report says. “At a moment when we are experiencing a national youth mental health crisis, now is the time to act swiftly and decisively to protect children and adolescents from risk of harm.”

These devices don’t care about your mission. They don’t care about the mental health or education of our young people. So why would you allow them into your classrooms, robbing you of your ability to achieve your stated goals?

[If you have a story about a young person being exposed to explicit content on the bus or playground, insert it here]

For 2020, Forbes reported that 80% of all internet pornography is consumed on mobile devices.

I’m not certain how much porn is being watched via VPNs and data plans, but imagine a time twenty years ago when schools allowed teens to carry and then display pornographic magazines to their friends over lunch or on the school bus?

Pornographers don’t care about your mission. Porn doesn’t care about the mental health or education of our young people. So why would you allow it into your classrooms – your cafeterias – robbing them of their innocence, and robbing you of your ability to achieve your stated goals?

It’s not easy being a school board member. I also know that in order to carry this burden, you must care deeply for the well-being of our children. We elected you so that you could implement and enforce policies that [insert District mission statement here]. And I challenge you with this question – are you fully able to fulfill the responsibilities of your elected position while competing with personal electronic devices?

How can our educators possibly get the hearts of our kids if they never fully have their attention first?

In closing, I ask for the following, specific actions:

  1. Create a policy that requires all personal smart devices to be put “away for the day” in lockers. Example policies are everywhere. I suggest starting by reading the example of Forest Hills Public Schools in Grand Rapids, MI.
  2. Or, if you decide to deny my request, then provide a written, public statement explaining your reasoning, including specific studies that support your position, and how allowing personal smart devices enhances the district’s ability to achieve its educational mission.

Thank you for your time.

References for Education Board speech:

  1. Nobile, P. (2015, May 19). Smartphone bans in schools result in higher test scores, study says. Newsday. Retrieved from https://www.newsday.com/business/technology/smartphone-bans-in-schools-result-in-higher-test-scores-study-says-1.10450756
  2. Twenge, J. M., Joiner, T. E., Rogers, M. L., & Martin, G. N. (2018). Increases in depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and suicide rates among U.S. adolescents after 2010 and links to increased new media screen time. Clinical Psychological Science, 6(1), 3-17. doi: 10.1177/2167702617723376
  3. Press Release (2016, January 29). AAFPRS annual survey reveals trends in facial plastic surgery. MarketWatch. Retrieved from https://www.marketwatch.com/press-release/aafprs-annual-survey-reveals-trends-in-facial-plastic-surgery-2018-01-29
  4. Matsakis, L. (2018, June 18). How Pro Eating-Disorder Posts Evade Filters on Social Media. Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/how-pro-eating-disorder-posts-evade-social-media-filters/
  5. Silver, C. (2021, April 8). Pornhub’s Tech Review Shows The Apple Vs. Android Battle For Porn Traffic. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/curtissilver/2021/04/08/pornhubs-tech-review-shows-the-apple-vs-android-battle-for-porn-traffic/

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10 thoughts on “#phonefreeschools – How to Talk to Your School District about Removing Smartphones”

  1. Just One Thing...

    I agree with you completely and in fact have gone through great lengths to place my child into a private school where no phones are allowed. One of my best friends, however, is the principle of a large suburban public school, and in spite of the fact that he agrees as well, his school has gone from a no phone policy to a free-for-all. The reason is that every time students had their phones returned to them, they were returned “broken.” He assures me they were not broken. He “got tired of writing checks” for $700 a piece. It started eating into the school budget. So unless this is a problem that can be solved, it once again boils down to money.

    1. This seems like an unusual situation, but if phones are locked “away for the day,” and kept out of random boxes in classrooms after being collected, then I imagine part of the problem gets solved. I wish you the best! Please don’t give up. Talk to him again and head up the chain of command.

  2. Todd McClelland

    I am a principal at a middle school where we changed the way we allow kids to access their phones. This year, we expressly started the year by letting kids and parents know that phones were only allowed in the classroom only with teacher permission. Otherwise, the phone should be kept in the student’s locker from the start of school until the end of school. How much push back did we receive. None! In fact, the feedback from parents was overwhelmingly positive. Instead of students being on their phones at lunch, they were talking and playing Uno. it also feels as though it has decreased our number of incidents that required a trip to the assistant principal’s office (but I don’t have the definitive data on this quite yet). This has been one of the best decisions our school has made and I highly suggest giving this serious consideration.

    1. Thank you, Todd! I still hold North Forsyth in such high regard. I was so impressed with the leadership that I experienced while there in February! I appreciate this note and I hope that more schools follow this lead.


  3. Hi all, just wondering if the link to the PDF (“with loads of research” under point 1) is working for anyone else? We are currently trying to implement this in our school and would like that consolidated research.

  4. I think we should all push harder against these schools, and force them to ban smartphones. It’s been proven it even cause cognitive problems when the phone is in the same room as the kids. Just knowing the phone is there makes their cognition less functioning. Besides all the dangers with smartphones it actually reduces their ability to learn. Ban them entirely.

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