A few weeks into my return to teaching part-time this spring, I paused my walk around the classroom to watch two young women in body-con dresses writhe in unison to a song I could not hear. The women were a few inches each, pixels on the screen in the hand of my student, who had an AirPod in each ear. The internet had yanked us both out of class, and now I had to catch my balance. Did you get anywhere with that writing prompt? I asked. Yeah, one sec, he said. Just gonna finish this. The school didn’t have a no-phone policy, and while the teacher whose classroom I was visiting reminded students to put them away during instruction, I had seen a rogue phone confiscated only once. Later, replaying the interaction in my head, what stood out wasn’t that this sweet and otherwise participatory student was on social media in class, it was that, in his mind, it was normal.
I knew teaching would feel different after two years of remote and hybrid school, but I had underestimated the role screens would play now that we were back “in person.” Over the semester, I witnessed my students write evocative, beautiful, surprising sentences. I also glimpsed them texting, gaming, Snapchatting, Instagramming, and streaming Netflix and YouTube, on both phones and laptops. If pandemic lockdowns had brought classrooms home, now it felt like home had come into class. Though policies around personal device use vary not only from district to district but classroom to classroom, nearly every secondary school teacher I have spoken with in the last year acknowledged a new normal of “post-pandemic” tech dependence.
As a result, this summer, school districts from Virginia to Maine to California are enacting general cell phone bans, while Michigan and Pennsylvania state lawmakers have introduced statewide mandates to do the same. Bans already exist for children and young adolescents in France and, as of last year, China. Given what we know about how phones and the social media they harbor can radicalize violence, harm mental health, and capsize attention spans—leaching our attention even when they are turned off—the case for eliminating devices to create safe learning spaces can seem like a no-brainer. But if we’re trying to prepare students for the messy, wider world, administrators need to put less energy into figuring out how to implement bans, and more into helping teenagers learn how to foster balance and focus while surrounded by the siren call of their devices.
Popular discourse holds students responsible for their tech addictions, and if not them, then their parents and teachers for failing to enforce better rules. But these are systemic problems, and they demand systemic solutions. It’s time to shift our collective gaze of accountability outward—not with a one-size-fits-all device ban, but with a renewed investment in digital literacy, ethics, and well-being.
During those dystopian months of the spring 2020 lockdown, one of my students streamed class on her phone, holding my co-teacher and I at literal arm’s length as she hid out in the quiet of her family minivan. For her and so many students, the phone was the thing her learning depended on. According to a 2021 Center for Democracy and Technology report, 86 percent of teachers reported that “schools provided tablets, laptops, or Chromebooks to students at twice the rate prior to the pandemic,” scrambling to democratize digital access when school went remote.
In this environment, any phone with internet capability became a mini-classroom. “If the Chromebook failed, it was like, ‘What wonderful backup, you can just pop on Zoom on your phone,’” says Allison Cutliff, an English teacher in St. Louis, Missouri.