School Beat — June 25, 2009

Addressing teens’ cell phone use

by DAN WARREN, Principal East Rockford Middle School

We have arrived at a place in our lives where we are instantly connected to each other through technology. It only takes a few seconds for us to connect for a conversation with just about anyone in just about any place in the world. We are communicating through personal technology at a rate so fast that when new information actually arrives to most of the general public, it’s already old news.

Not only are we easily and quickly connected to others, our technology also allows us to gather information on any topic within seconds of pushing a few buttons. Want to find out a play-by-play analysis of your favorite professional sports team? Just dial it up. Or, maybe if you have the appropriate system, you could watch it live in the palm of your hand.

Arguably, the cell phone is the personal electronic device that has revolutionized our ability to easily communicate with the world. Some of us remember the days when only physicians had pagers or the bulkiness of the first mobile phones. Today, a cell phone the size of a business card is all you need to run an international business. Personal technology devices that allow us instant communication and the ability to gather information are all probably very good for us and most likely unavoidable in today’s “need to know and do” society. And I am sure these devices will become even more efficient over time and certainly increase in popularity with each citizen.

Allowing students to have cell phones in school is a challenging dilemma for both educators and parents. Aside from the obvious disruption cell phone use presents in public, how do we maintain normalcy in the instructional day, while knowing that a student is in possession of a communication tool that could easily be used for various inappropriate means? There have been many court cases involving student improper use of cell phones in school settings, most involving cyber bullying and transmitting unacceptable content. Obviously, this adds another layer of student behavior schools and parents have to manage. At some point in the future, maybe the cell phone will serve as a student’s personal computer that connects seamlessly with instruction. However, schools are not at this level of technology integration, yet.

It’s easy to conclude that maybe schools should not allow students to have cell phones on campus. Or some could contend that allowing your teen to have a cell phone is questionable parenting. However, national research indicates that parents desire the convenience of having the connection with their teen that cell phones provide. There is safety in knowing your teen can quickly connect with you if necessary. Certainly teenagers are more than capable of understanding and following proper cell phone use procedures.

As with many changes in our evolving culture, schools have created policies to address cell phone possession and use by students. These policies are designed to allow students to possess personal cell phones, while also protecting the rights of others and honoring the school’s instructional process. Like most schools, Rockford’s cell phone policy does not allow students to use cell phones during the instructional day. However, they are allowed to have a cell phone at school.

How do parents and educators address this whole cell phone issue with teens? We have a big challenge, according to most studies regarding teens and cell phones. Adolescents represent an important demographic for cell phone makers, as cell phones have become an integral part of teens’ lives. In a recent Neilson survey, about four out of every five teens carry a cell phone. This is up from 40 percent of teens owning a cell phone in 2004. Approximately 50 percent of teens today say that having a cell phone is “key” to their social lives. According to Nielsen, kids are getting cell phones even before they hit their teens. Nearly half of kids aged 8 to 12 years own cell phones in the U.S. On average, kids get their first cell phone between the ages of 10 and 11 years. The next time a teenager says, “Mom, if I don’t have a phone, I am going to be a nobody,” they are being serious.

So, what impact does the cell phone have on teen behavior? According to Nielsen, the cell phone has become a primary mode of socializing for teens and they will often avoid contact with peers who don’t have cell phones. Teens often express an attitude that “if you are not a name or number on my phone book, then you are not on my social radar screen.”

Teens also believe that they can gauge a peer’s popularity or status by the phone he or she uses. It’s not uncommon for a teen to be embarrassed for his friends to see his phone if it’s not “teched up” enough. Consistent with the findings of the Nielsen survey, teens text message as much as or more than they talk on the phone. Almost 50 percent of teens say they could text blindfolded.

Teenagers can get so immersed in the use of their technology that they often see little difference between meeting face-to-face and talking on the phone. A common scene often observed is a group of teenagers sitting together at a mall, all with ears glued to cell phones, while talking with faraway friends rather than to each other. This “social” interaction has created a new kind of “digital divide” among teenagers in which they are hanging out, but not really communicating face-to-face. For teens, this behavior is completely normal and acceptable. It does appear that the cell phone has now presented teens with yet another social challenge, as if they do not have enough existing on their already full self-esteem plate.

Not only are we adults presented with challenges to teach our children how to properly and safely use their cell phone, we are also caught up in trying to understand the social issues associated with the cell phone. I have certainly witnessed this “digital divide” as there is nothing more annoying than trying to talk with a teenager when you have to compete with an electronic device, which is obviously more important to the teen than my wisdom. Whatever happened to the days in which we sent our kids off with a dime for the pay phone? Or when an actual conversation occurred in the car on a trip to visit grandma?

However, let’s be fair to our teens and keep this whole cell phone issue in perspective. Adults, like teens, also find themselves tied to their cell phones. Adults are just as guilty as their teenage kids of accepting cell phone calls during dinner or excusing themselves from a conversation or meeting to take a call on their mobile phone.

The huge majority of school-age teens use cell phones for their intended purposes and respect rules associated with proper use. We have to trust that teens will not “poke their eyes out” with their cell phones.

Nevertheless, schools must have a policy to address cell phone use. Both parents and educators must continue instructing teens to adhere to the specific behaviors necessary to reflect responsible cell phone use. Listed below is Rockford Public Schools’ student cell phone use policy. This policy is designed to inform both students and parents that cellular phones must not disrupt the school day. All student cellular devices must be off during the instructional day starting at 7:40 a.m. and ending at 2:30 p.m. The policy is as follows:

  • First Offense:  cellular device will be confiscated and returned to student after 2:30 p.m. Parent called by teacher (if cellular device is on in class) or administrator (if cellular phone is on outside of class).
  • Second Offense:  after-school detention; cellular device will be returned after assigned detention is served. Parent contacted by administration to discuss consequences if a third offense should occur.
  • Third Offense:  one-day suspension. Parent conference with student and administrator before cellular device will be returned to the parent.
  • Fourth Offense:  three-day suspension. Parent informed, student will not be permitted to bring cellular device into the building. Parent conference with administrator before cellular phone returned to parent.



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