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State may urge cellphone bans in schools

The state board of elementary and secondary education held a meeting in Malden. The state's education commissioner said that Massachusetts may begin encouraging a ban on cellphone use in school.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Jeffrey Riley, the state’s education commissioner, said this week that Massachusetts may begin encouraging school districts to ban cellphone use in schools, amid growing concerns that they have become a distraction and that the heavy use of social media on them can pose mental health risks.

Riley announced that the state would “likely” begin providing matching grants of up to $1 million in total across the state to districts that are interested in piloting changes to their cellphone policy, but the state is not mandating restrictions “at this time.” Riley did not say what the grants would pay for, but some districts have given students pouches to hold their phones throughout the day.

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“I thought it was important to begin the discussion of the use of cellphones and their effect on kids,” Riley said during Tuesday’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting.

He added, “I’m not sure we as a board have ever taken up this issue in a way that needs to be addressed.”

Riley’s announcement came shortly after US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released a 25-page advisory warning that excessive use of social media — often viewed on cellphones — can pose risks to children and teen’s mental health and well-being.

Teenagers who spend more than three hours a day on social media face “double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes including symptoms of depression and anxiety,” according to the advisory. Up to 95 percent of teens reported using social media, and over a third said they are on it “almost constantly.” The Surgeon General’s advisory calls for families to establish “tech-free” zones in their households and for kids to adopt “health practices” like limiting their time on platforms.

School officials say the phones can be a distraction, and some say they have noticed an increased lack of focus on school work in recent years, as many students seemingly have grown more dependent on them after the COVID-19 pandemic.

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In recent years, several schools across Massachusetts have already taken steps to address problems with cellphone use and implemented strict policies that include having students lock their phones in magnetized pouches, most of which are developed by Yondr, a California-based company that designed them: Teachers and administrators have magnets that can open the pouches at the end of the school day, or if there is an immediate need.

The pouches have been distributed in more than 2,500 schools globally, including more than 1,500 in the United States, according to Julia Gustafson, the director of education partnerships at Yondr. Nearly 50 schools in Massachusetts have partnered with the company, she said, including Springfield Central High School and Chicopee High School.

The state education board on Tuesday heard from leaders, educators, and students from three schools that have restricted cellphone use about whether their policies have been effective.

The social studies department at Concord-Carlisle High School, for instance, developed a policy where students are required to put their cellphones in a caddy when they go into their classrooms, teacher Johanna Glazer told the board.

Alex Nugent, a junior at Concord-Carlisle High, said enforcement of the policy has varied, with some teachers with smaller classes having fewer concerns about cellphones being a distraction. But a lot of teachers, Nugent said, have been using the policy to take attendance, adding that students are not being sent to the principal for not having their phones in the caddy but instead are marked absent.

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“I also have a little brother who’s a sophomore right now and he just got his phone recently as well, and he’s on it all the time,” Nugent said. “But with the caddy, he’s so unplugged that his teachers will come up to me in the hallway because he’s left his phone completely in the caddy, which is really nice to say that he’s been so disconnected that he doesn’t even remember that he has a phone.”

Traci Walker Griffith, executive director of the Eliot K-8 Innovation School in Boston, told the board that the school had always discouraged the use of cellphones and teachers would take them away from students, but school officials recognized how much more of a distraction the devices were after the return to in-person learning in the fall of 2021.

The Eliot launched a new cellphone policy in December 2021, Walker Griffith said, requiring students to shut down their phones and put them into pouches as they head into the school.

“Teachers have magnets, so if there was an issue and they had to open those phones that could happen in a moment,” Walker Griffith said. “But clearly for us, it’s an ongoing process, and we do feel deeply that it has positively impacted our schools.”

Gwyneth Zeeck, an eighth-grade student at the Eliot, told the board she noticed a difference in the way she and her peers pay attention in class and engage in more discussions with the people around them.

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“Those first few months coming back from COVID where everyone had no social interactions … all the social interactions and all of that mental headspace was put into your phone, the urge was there,” Zeeck said. “When you got to school, and you were in a place that you hadn’t been for so long, you moved to what was comfortable, and what was comfortable was being on your phone.”

But some students during Tuesday’s meeting said they notice more of their peers still have the urge to quickly check their devices and that students must still learn how to deal with the distraction of their phones outside of school. A simple ban won’t address that urge on its own, they said.

“With all these different types of cellphone policies, I think that the students aren’t given the initiative to restrain themselves and learn how to deal with distractions,” Concord-Carlisle High School student Alexander Sproule said. “[Students] are so used to being told ‘put your phone away’ and if they don’t have anyone telling them to do that, I don’t necessarily think they’re going to take that into their own initiative.”



Adria Watson can be reached at adria.watson@globe.com. Follow her @adriarwatson.