Cellphone Interference? I-Team Examines Student Distraction From Cellphones in Class

Erinn Harris, a high school journalism teacher in Fairfax County, has what some might call a “love-hate” relationship with cellphones.

She has her own mobile device, of course, and sometimes allows her students to use their wireless phones to help with assignments during class.

But if students sneak glances or respond to pings and notifications while she’s teaching, Harris admits it can be “highly irritating.”

“I think it can be something that would drive people crazy,” she said, adding: “I’ve just found my own ways of managing it in the classroom.”

The Thomas Jefferson High School teacher is among millions of educators in the U.S. competing with smart devices for students’ attention. While the vast majority of Americans — as many as 96 percent — now own cellphones, according to a report from the Pew Research Center, schools are still grappling with whether, and how, to incorporate them in class.

A News4 I-Team investigation found widespread frustration among teachers over the problem, and some area schools are implementing tougher restrictions on mobile device usage.

Roughly 85 percent of local teachers said student cellphones should be banned in classrooms, according to a recent survey of nearly 500 teachers by the News4 I-Team. The unscientific survey, which was distributed through teacher unions in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., found a majority of respondents — 65 percent — said students’ cellphone usage in the classroom impacts their enjoyment of the job.



Many of the respondents said phones aren’t necessary if students have access to laptops and said the phones not only distract students from the lesson at hand, but inhibit healthy peer interaction, cause “addiction,” lead to interruptions and enable cheating.

“The internet should be identified by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) as hazardous to youth,” one teacher wrote.

Another said: “The time a teacher spends policing cellphones totally detracts from their ability to effectively deliver instruction.”

Harris, who has been teaching for several years, said she allows her students to have their phones facedown on their desks unless she gives them permission to use them.

“If you are not setting out clear expectations, then it could easily be something that is distracting [students] from any task that you give them,” Harris told News4.

Teachers' Thoughts on Cellphones in the Classroom

Here's what teachers have to say about the role of cellphones in the classroom, based on an informal survey of 470 teachers by the News4 I-Team.

Source: News4 I-Team
Credit: Anisa Holmes/NBC Washington

About 80 percent of respondents said their school has a student cellphone usage policy, but only a quarter said those policies are adequately enforced.

Destiny Needam, a senior at Tuscarora High School in Frederick, Maryland, said she’s seen classmates watch and even record videos during class. She’s also observed teachers become frustrated when kids use their phones out of turn, “especially during instruction [when] somebody is trying to respond to a text or their phone keeps going off.”

The I-Team conducted its survey as several school districts have implemented stricter policies on student phone usage.

This year, Fairfax County recommended middle schools require students keep phones in backpacks or lockers, while West Frederick Middle School in Maryland instituted a “cellphone free environment,” records show.

George Washington Middle School in Alexandria also banned phones for the year, writing in a letter to parents it “believes that a cellphone on a desk, in a pocket, or in a backpack provides too tempting a distraction for our students.”

Last year, Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C., began testing a program requiring students to keep their phones in locked pouches during class time and continued that policy this school year, according to a spokesman. 

Montgomery County Public Schools’ policy requires phones be turned off during the school day unless a teacher permits its usage, but Superintendent Jack Smith reportedly left open the possibility of tightening that policy.

“We are looking at all the research coming out, and of course the world of cellphones has been an ever-evolving world for public education in the last 10 years,” Smith told WTOP in September. “We will probably make some decisions this year around how we go forward.”

Still, George Washington University professor Natalie Milman said schools hoping to ban phones in class are fighting an up-hill battle.

“A zero-tolerance policy of technology is not realistic in this day and age,” said Milman, who teaches education technology.

It’s not just phones, she said. Students have myriad gadgets at their disposal. What’s more, many parents resist mobile device bans because they want to easily reach their child, especially during an emergency.

Dozens of teachers who responded to the I-Team survey said cellphones should be allowed in the classroom.

Among those teachers, some said the phones can help students learn and research topics at hand. Others said allowing students to have their phones can help teach when it’s appropriate to use them, and when it isn’t.

Milman agreed.

“Self-regulation, I think, is important to teach, particularly to adolescents,” she said. “Once they go to college or go to work, there are times when it is completely unacceptable to have a cellphone out.”

Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Katie Leslie and Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.

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