Editorial: Take The Cell Phones Away

Editorial: Take The Cell Phones Away

Torrington Middle School was in the news this week.

After receiving approval from their local Board of Education back in February, Torrington District administrators began enforcing a new cell phone rule for students. As the middle schoolers enter, they are required to put their cell phones in a specially-designed pouch that is then locked. When the students leave for the day, the pouch is unlocked and phones are returned to the students.

Most school districts in Connecticut have rules regarding student cell phone use during class hours, but Torrington’s approach takes things to the next level. Instead of asking students to obey and then expecting teachers to enforce the rules throughout the course of a morning or afternoon, Torrington is taking the cell phones completely out of students’ hands.

We hope this program catches on locally and around the state.

The program has garnered backlash from students and even from some parents who worry that their children, removed from their phones throughout the course of a day, would be deprived of the ability to communicate with them in case of an emergency, medical or otherwise. But while such apprehension is to be expected whenever a new, rather extreme program is enacted, it’s hard to see how removing cell phones from the day-to-day life of a student while in school puts anyone at risk. In case of emergencies, parents can and should be contacted by the schools themselves, and it’s hard to envision a scenario where that wouldn’t happen.

What it will do is eliminate a huge distraction. As cell phones have become “smarter,” they have become more and more a part of our lives. This isn’t just true for students, but for all of us. Go anywhere, whether it be to a restaurant or a park, and you’re likely to see people staring down at their phones as opposed to interacting with the person sitting or walking next to them. Even while attending events that are designed to hold our attention — a movie or sporting event — people can be seen scrolling through whatever content is appearing before them, courtesy of a seven-inch screen in their hand.

Last year, Frances Haugen, a former employee at Facebook, testified before Congress about what she claimed to be the company’s “amplification algorithms” and “engagement-based rankings” — rewarding posts that get the most shares or likes — used to determine what it is we see in our “streams” when logging on to the site. The basic thrust of Haugen’s testimony was that the algorithms funnel people, particularly teens, towards content that has led to everything from increased cyberbullying to body-image issues. It was explosive testimony that seemed to create, for the first time in a while, bipartisan interest in addressing the problem.

Yet, Facebook is only one social media platform and “harmful” content is only one part of the equation, albeit potentially the most destructive. For many, including children in schools, the Internet has become addictive, enabled by those very algorithms designed to give you more of what it determines you want. Even if one is not inundated with harmful material, the very nature of social media is to keep a user “using,” whether they be at school, work, or out with friends.

There is a longer conversation that needs to be had about how all of us interact with our phones and the “online community,” but after two years of a pandemic, where many students were forced to do their learning from home in front of a computer screen all day, limiting distractions in the classroom should be first priority. It may seem harsh to take a student’s cell phone and lock it up in a pouch for a few hours a day, but perhaps that’s the healthiest thing for them. And adults should always be willing to do the unpopular thing if it leads to the healthiest solutions for young people.

Torrington is making the right call, and we hope other school districts follow suit.


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