Tweens, Teens, Cellphones, and the Classroom: Some Thoughts and Suggestions

September 26, 2016

According to a 2015 PEW Research report, (, approximately 88% of all teens today have access to either a cellphone or Smartphone in North America. As parents, we can attest to how mobile has changed the playing field when it comes to our kids accessing the internet and social media. Given that these phones have become a cyborg-type appendage that has become difficult for our kids to disconnect from, it’s no wonder that we are now seeing an ever-increasing debate over the access and use of cellphones within schools.

Today, schools are struggling with how to, if at all, integrate this technology into the classroom. There are educators who have freely embraced this technology, and have found ways to successfully weave its use into their lesson plans. There are others however, who have found that the integration of cells phones in the classroom has become too disruptive, resulting in huge negative outcomes for learning. Recent research on this issue has found that when students use their cellphones in class for things other than what is being taught (i.e. text messaging, emails, use of social media), it can have a negative outcome on academic performance and test grades (, ( , (

There are, however, other studies such as the one conducted by Stanford University in 2014 ( ) that show that the use of tech in a classroom with at-risk students can be very beneficial.

Bring Your Own Device (B.Y.O.D) has been a recent adoption that many schools have taken, but what about those students who come from a socioeconomic background that fiscally prevents them from owning a digital device? (

How does a school ensure equal academic access to these students? Do we create a greater digital divide between the “have” and “have not” students at a school when a school adopts a BYOD policy? Through my readings of the literature, it is clear to me that there are many more questions than there are answers that still need to be asked and even considered specific to BYOD.

The fact remains however, that schools aren’t entirely sure what to be doing today given the Smartphone tidal wave that has now landed in the classroom. Having presented to over 360 junior and senior high schools throughout Canada and the United States, I have found two practices/policies that are usually adopted by school districts:

  1. Zero tolerance for any use at any time on school property, or
  2. BYOD with no appropriate policy, procedure, or enforcement


This type of policy, although effective specific to dealing with distraction in the classroom (, does not reflect the reality of how teens can be taught how to use their device as a very effective learning tool in both the classroom and in life. A zero tolerance policy also forces students to become creative in their “underground” online activities while at school, which can also have huge negative consequences.


Given the fact that cellphones have become ubiquitous in schools, and given the fact that it has become more and more difficult for teachers and principals to manage their use, even with Zero Tolerance policies in place, many schools have just opened the doors and allowed students to bring their phones and other devices into the classroom. Usually these schools will cobble together some basic policy surrounding use in the school, but too often this policy is ignored by both students and teachers. This, ladies and gentlemen, becomes a recipe for disaster, especially when it comes to all the distraction in the classroom that raises challenges that many teachers face today.

A Hybrid/Asymmetrical Suggestion:

I do not agree with Zero Tolerance or BYOD No Policy approaches for the current challenges faced specific to this issue. I do however believe in a hybrid asymmetrical approach that I have outlined below. Specific to policy, schools need to adopt what I call the “Iron Fist, Velvet Glove Approach” to policy development. In other words, policy should be relevant and reasonable to meet the needs of all (Velvet Glove), but when breached there should also be reasonable and appropriate consequence to the actions (Iron Fist).

A school’s policy on this challenge should clearly outline:

  • purpose
  • expectations
  • acceptable behaviour
  • unacceptable behaviour, and
  • conssequences for actions

One of the better policies I have seen written on this topic comes from Liberty Christian Academy in Lynchburg Virginia in the United States. ( The only changes I would make to this policy would be to allow students to access their devices prior to classes starting in the morning, during lunch, and after school hours. Note that I did not include a recess, as I believe this should be a time where teens and especially tweens should be interacting with one another face-to-face. Remember, it is about finding a balance. I would also ensure that both the parent and student sign off on this policy so that neither can state later on that they were never advised about the consequences to actions regarding inappropriate mobile use while at school.

In my opinion, the most important component for this policy to work is to have 100% buy-in from all staff, and that consequences to actions must be enforced immediately and consistently. Remember, students will always push back to see how far they can go, thus why the school must enforce a breach in a reasonable and appropriate manner. As parents, you need to become their “best teacher” and not their “best friend” specific to this issue and all of its challenges.

The Asymmetrical Compliance Application by Teachers:

A good policy should also allow any teacher to apply its principles consistently, but yet also allow the teacher to implement them in diverse applications. As most of us now know, because of research (, one reason why these Smartphones have become so addictive to our tweens and teens is because of the production of dopamine. Every time the phone rings, beeps, chirps, or vibrates, the brain becomes conditioned to release a small amount of dopamine: the pleasure drug. This is why, over time, it becomes so difficult for many students to not have access to their phones privately during class for things other than schoolwork.

Understanding this fact, there is now new research emerging from the field of cyber-psychology. Research psychologist and professor emeritus Larry Rosen at California State University states,

“Most college students are heavy users who are going to get anxious and stressed within 10 or 15 minutes if they can’t check their phones. Give in to the distraction, but at measured intervals. I start by calling a tech break, where they can check their phone for one minute, every 15 minutes,” he says. “Over time you can increase it to 20, 25. And within a couple weeks you can get them to go 30 minutes without needing it.”

This, in my opinion, is a great example of an asymmetrical application of psychological research that has proven to be highly effective. So, for you teachers of both junior and senior high school students, maybe think about adding at least one one-minute tech break in your class; it may just be the answer to what you are looking for. Again, if a student abuses this “privilege” then there should be a reasonable consequence such as the ones outlined in the above noted policy.

Another teacher uses what I call an “incentivizing technique” which has worked well in her class:

Here’s another incentivizing approach to minimizing personal cellphone use in class:

Too many schools have no clear and consistent policy when it comes to cellphone use in a classroom. However, some school who have implemented policies prove that these policies are often dated or even Draconian in nature given current academic research on the issue. Often a school’s expectations are totally inconsistent in their approach and application to these challenges from class to class; this only leads to students not being able to develop consistent and desirable mobile use behaviors.

I do believe that good policy, combined with “asymmetrical compliance techniques,” can go a long way to ensure that mobile tech is well integrated into a school, thus benefiting all.

Digital Food For Thought

Darren Laur

AKA #thewhitehatter

PS: Parents, you may also be interested in the “Internet, Social Media and Mobile Device Family Collective Agreement” article that I wrote that also provides you with a free collective agreement that both you and your children can sign. This agreement would synergize very nicely with a school’s Mobile Use Policy:

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