Smartphones in the Classroom: Helpful or Harmful?

With smartphone ownership among kids and teens at an all-time high, the temptation to check social media or text a classmate during class can be a distraction for students—and a challenge for educators. However, technology in schools can be a powerful tool for helping kids engage and learn. Experts believe the optimal age to provide a child with a smartphone is somewhere between 12 and 14.1 In 2019, one in five children owned a smartphone by the age of 8, as did 53% of 11-year-olds and a whopping 89% of teens.2 But they’re starting to pose a problem for teachers, who have the unique challenge of educating a generation of children who are considerably more tech savvy than their elders.

Inconsistent Policies & Regulations

Regulations for cell phone use in schools differ between states, districts and individual schools. In 2019, a new California law, AB 272, authorized schools to reduce or prohibit cell phone use, but left it to individual schools to make their own policies.3 One state school district, San Mateo, responded by providing each student with a case that locks their phone until the end of the school day, so they can keep their phones on their person but cannot use them until class is dismissed.4

It’s often left to school superintendents (who are under pressure from teachers, students and parents) to make what can be a very difficult call. While a complete ban may be appealing to some, it’s not easy to enforce – and the results are not easy to measure. In 2015, for instance, the nation’s largest school district, New York City, dropped its phone ban, in part due to concerns that it was enforced more harshly in lower-income schools.5

Several states away, Wisconsin’s Menomonee Falls School District adopted a strict ban in 2017 and continued it through the 2018-19 school year, calling it a “pragmatic” response to the issue of inconsistent rules and unequal enforcement. Halfway through the school year, more than 75 percent of staff members said the new policy had a positive effect on learning and student behavior – and was met with less parent resistance than feared. According to the district’s superintendent, “the overall feedback from families was, ‘Thank you.’”6

Still, many believe that total bans are not only unrealistic and unequal, but actually detrimental to students. Taking a smartphone to school can help keep students engaged and provides peace of mind for parents, who can check in or give important reminders throughout the day.

Plus, smartphones provide vital lines of communication in the event of an emergency or accident, enabling parents to confirm that their kids are safe and secure.

For some students, using smartphones to study is a matter of access. Teens in lower-income houses spend significantly less time using computers for homework than their peers in higher-income homes and often use their smartphones to compensate.7 With all the practical reasons for students to bring their phones to school, it’s clear that smartphones in class aren’t going away. So how can teachers make the most of them?

Learning Self-Discipline

Although having access to a smartphone during class can be a distraction, it’s also an opportunity for students to learn and practice an important life skill: self-discipline. Being able to refocus and concentrate on schoolwork, despite the siren song of the smartphone, is a tool kids can carry with them into college and, eventually, the workplace.

Though some teachers continue to exercise a strict “no phones in class” rule in order to keep their students’ attention, others are taking a more democratic approach. Rather than banning them outright, teachers are involving students in discussions about attention, technology, and self-discipline. Teachers then use that student feedback to create classroom policies that kids are more likely to respect.

In California’s San Mateo district, where students can keep their phones in a locked pouch, the response has been positive, pointing to the benefits of letting students keep some autonomy (i.e. not confiscating phones outright) while still limiting distractions. One student stated, “At first, I was skeptical. But now, I like it because it makes students socialize more amongst each other, and teachers say students are talking to each other more rather than being zoned out on their phones.”8

Teachers must also learn to address the way smartphones affect students’ curiosity. While smartphones provide seemingly limitless access to information at the press of a button, they also make students less comfortable with uncertainty. When you’re used to instant answers, questions that require deeper thought and analysis can feel intimidating.

Digital Citizenship Curricula

One of the most pressing concerns that teachers report regarding their students’ use of technology is their ability to critically evaluate online information. Among other internet-related concerns, many children do not yet have the experience or academic training needed to parse a reputable online source from “fake news” or a random blog. That’s why many schools are implementing digital citizenship curricula to help students make smart, safe and ethical decisions online.

Today, 72% of educators are teaching at least one type of digital citizenship, including lessons on cyberbullying and hate speech, privacy and safety, news and media literacy, digital footprint and identity, media balance, well-being and more.9

 Setting Appropriate Boundaries

Building healthy technology habits starts at home. Have an open conversation with your kids about their smartphone usage and how they can successfully balance it with other areas of their lives. Ask your kids how they feel when they spend too much time on social media or playing video games and discuss strategies they can use to unplug and refocus. You might be surprised at how self-aware young adults are of the ways technology can affect their emotional and psychological well-being.

Educate with Smarter Tech

As smartphones and tablets become more common in the classroom, apps are an effective way for teachers to integrate technology and education. From creating engaging lesson plans to keeping parents involved and informed, these apps are helping students and teachers succeed.

 For students:


Keep parents in the loop. The Seesaw app lets students store and post their best work in a portfolio to share with their parents. Meanwhile, teachers can provide clear examples of students’ strengths and areas for improvement.


Turn a staid lesson plan into a fun game show. Kahoot! lets teachers enter prepared questions and answers to create an instant classroom game. Students then download the app to use as a buzzer to answer questions.

 For teachers:

 Google Classroom

Distribute and grade assignments, organize class materials, and reach students instantly. Google Classroom utilizes Google Drive and the rest of the G Suite for Education to help teachers boost engagement and classroom participation.


Teaching doesn’t just happen in the classroom. With Pocket, educators can easily share relevant articles, videos and more with students that they can access with or without a network connection.

Teaching kids how to use technology responsibly is a major challenge for parents and educators. Make sure your child’s device stays protected with the latest cases and accessories from U.S. Cellular.


  1. Chen, Brian X. “What’s the Right Age for a Child to Get a Smartphone?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 July 2016,
  2. “The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens, 2019: Common Sense Media.” Common Sense Media: Ratings, Reviews, and Advice, 28 Oct. 2019,
  3. “AB 272 Pupils: use of smartphones.” California Legislative Information, 2019.
  4. “New California Law Bans Cell Phones in Classrooms.” Physicians for Safe Technology, 29 Sep. 2019.
  5. Klein, Alyson. “Schools Say No to Cellphones in Class. But Is It a Smart Move?” Education Week, 18 Nov. 2019,
  6. Dohms, Elizabeth. “Banning Cellphones In Classrooms Is Helping Students Be Less Distracted, Staff Say.” Wisconsin Public Radio, 7 Sep 2018.
  7. “The Common Sense Census: Inside the 21st-Century Classroom: Common Sense Media.” Common Sense Media: Ratings, Reviews, and Advice, 18 Apr. 2019,
  8. Physicians for Safe Technology, 2019.
  9. Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens, 2019