Do School Smartphone Bans Work?

Earlier this year, Florida passed a law requiring public schools statewide to ban student cellphone use during class time. The new state rules reflect an intensifying global crackdown on young people and social media.

In early October, the British government issued new guidelines recommending that student cellphone use be prohibited in schools nationwide. That followed Italy, which last year banned cellphones during lessons, and China, which two years ago barred children from taking phones to school.

A recent report from UNESCO, the United Nations’ educational and cultural agency, found that nearly one in four countries now has laws or policies banning or restricting student cellphone use in schools. Such bans typically make exceptions for students with disabilities and for educational uses approved by teachers.

Even so, the smartphone crackdowns are contentious.

Proponents say the bans prevent students from scrolling through social media and sending bullying text messages, reducing classroom distractions. Critics warn that cutting off students from their phones could disproportionately punish those with jobs or family responsibilities — and that enforcing the bans could boost harsh disciplinary measures like school suspensions.

While some schools have had a significant decrease in cyberbullying incidents, there is little rigorous research on the long-term effects of the bans.

School districts in the United States have been experimenting with phone bans for more than 30 years.

In 1989, as illegal drug sales spiked, Maryland passed a law making it illegal for students to take pagers and devices then known as “cellular telephones” to school. Violators could face fines and jail time. In the 1990s, as more students took cellphones to school, districts also instituted bans to remove the disruptive devices that kept ringing during classes.

In the early 2000s, after the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, schools began reversing their cellphone bans for safety reasons — to allow students to contact their parents during emergencies.

The bans soon surged again as schools tried to curb new classroom distractions: iPhones and popular mobile apps like Facebook. By 2010, more than 90 percent of schools prohibited student cellphone use during school hours, according to federal data.

But concerns that…