Should Cell Phones Be Restricted at School?

Dr. Laura Rubin was recently asked by parents from a local middle school to provide a statement regarding whether cell phones should be restricted during the school day.  Read Dr. Rubin’s position below:


As a licensed clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist, I am in support of the petition which restricts the use of personal devices, including cell phones, during the school day. Current statistics are staggering: the average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly 8 hours a day with different media, and older children and teens spend more than 11 hours per day. About 75 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds own cell phones, and nearly all teenagers use text messaging. Notably, this rise in use of personal devices is occurring during a particularly vulnerable time in terms of adolescent brain development. During this time there is a protracted development of neural circuitry, particularly in the prefrontal cortex and limbic system structures and white-matter associated fibers. The part of the brain responsible for decision making (e.g., the frontal lobes) is not fully myelinated (i.e., insulation of neurons) until the late 20s or beyond. Furthermore, there is an imbalance during adolescence between the more mature subcortical areas and less mature prefrontal areas. What does this brain research mean in terms of adolescent behaviors and decision making? Not surprisingly, adolescents do not always make the wisest decisions, including their use of cell phones.


There is substantial research documenting the potential concerns associated with personal devices (e.g., cell phones), including obesity, lack of sleep, school problems, potential for addiction, aggression and other behavior issues. While this can impact an adolescent in multiple environments, it is particularly concerning that use of cell phones can negatively impact them in the academic setting. The use of cell phones during the school day can result in various distractions that negatively impact a student’s ability to learn. Whether the student is checking to see how many “likes” he or she has on an Instagram or Facebook post, texting various friends, or potentially viewing provocative material, such distractions remove the student from their primary job while at school: learning. Moreover, the rise in cyber-bullying, frequently facilitated through use of cell phones, has resulted in a pernicious cycle of mental health concerns that can cripple adolescence during a particularly vulnerable time in brain and social-emotional development. Many mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety often begin in adolescence. The negative impact of inappropriate cell phone use during the school day may in fact mediate the relation between mental health status and poor academic outcomes in some students.


In summary, the use of cell phones has a time and a place; however, it is not during the school day. Please consider restricting the use of cell phones to 1) help create and maintain an academic environment where students can be fully present to learn, 2) minimize the potential deleterious impact of social media on students, and 3) support students’ academic and social-emotional needs during a time of complex brain development and learning.


Respectfully submitted,

Laura A. Rubin, Ph.D.

Portsmouth Neuropsychology Center