North Shore High School teacher Greg Perles said he started with requests, politely asking the student to put away the cellphone. Then came a few reminders. Finally, he told the student to hand over the device.
The confrontation, which occurred during last year's school term, marked the only time Perles has gone so far as to take away a student's phone. But the history teacher said he regularly sees students taking out their phones during class to trade texts and emails, and to check for notifications and social media posts.
"They've cultivated a dependency," Perles said of students' attachment to their phones. "I think they're hooked in dangerous ways that we're not even talking about."
Long Island educators said they’re seeing more and more students who can’t keep their hands off their cellphones during class. The problem, they add, worsened after students returned from the COVID pandemic, when kids learned at home remotely and relied on their phones to connect to the outside world.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Long Island educators said they’re seeing more and more students who can’t keep their hands off their cellphones during class.
- The problem, they add, worsened after students returned from the COVID pandemic, when kids learned at home remotely and relied on their cellphone to connect to the outside world.
- Some Island districts — including Sag Harbor, Brentwood and Shelter Island — are either adopting or considering policies to restrict the use of cellphones in school.
Students' increasing obsession with cellphones has raised concerns that they are missing valuable classroom lessons and, even worse, developing mental health problems, experts said.
Some 77% of schools nationwide have policies prohibiting nonacademic use of cellphones in class, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics. In New York, the use of cellphones in schools is left to local districts, state education officials say.
Long Island has 124 separate districts. Policies are often left up to schools and in some cases individual teachers.
Some Island districts — including Sag Harbor, Brentwood and Shelter Island — are either adopting or considering policies to restrict the use of cellphones in school.
"Different districts and different grade levels handle cellphones differently," said Bob Vecchio, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association. "I've heard of some districts banning them. But it can be difficult to effectively enforce."
The problem with cellphone overuse is among several issues that have worsened since students returned from the pandemic, including overall discipline problems, he said.
A National Center for Education Statistics survey of school leaders last summer found 56% of respondents said the pandemic led to increased classroom disruptions from students, and 48% reported an increase in acts of disrespect toward teachers and staff.
Educators in several states — including districts in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee, California and Colorado — have implemented regulations that allow schools to restrict cellphone use.
Phones central to their lives
While many schools have a general policy prohibiting nonacademic cellphone use during class, enforcement is often left up to the teacher.
Perles, the North Shore teacher, said he works hard to avoid confrontation with students over their phones. He encourages class discussion on excessive cellphone use and its effects on self-esteem, as well as risks of depression and self harm. He talks about the ways in which apps track their lives with algorithms that drive what they see on their screens and consequently "frame their world."
"They can't dispute the centrality of phones in their life," Perles said, adding that he conveys to students: "This is a serious place, not a boring place, but a serious place."
Shelter Island teacher Peter Miedema has students silence and store their phones in a basket when they enter his class. Miedema, who teaches history in grades 7 through 12 at the Shelter Island School, said he started the practice at the start of this school year in September, having seen problems escalating.
Miedema said he saw one student or another reaching for their phones every few minutes. He took a few phones away, returning them at the end of class. In the back of his mind, he said, he kept the memory of a Texas student who sucker-punched a teacher in the face after his cellphone was taken away.
"This has gone way beyond students passing notes to each other," Miedema said. "It undercuts discipline in general when you're saying, 'I've told you five times to put it away.' "
In September, Miedema had students in all six of his classes store their phones at the beginning of class. The prohibition stirred a lot of discussion, and some pushback from students, but after a time it started working. Now he needs only two of the classes to store their phones, he said.
The Shelter Island school board, meanwhile, is considering banning the cellphones for grades 6-12 when school starts in September, though the specifics of the plan have yet to be determined, Superintendent Brian Doelger said.
Kaitlyn Gulluscio, a junior at Shelter Island School, is in Miedema's first-period social studies class. She said his strategy of separating students from their phones has made a difference.
"I think some kids were put off by it in the beginning. Now it's not a big deal because they respect him," she said, noting that her class no longer has the phones taken away.
Around the school, Gulluscio said, she's seen students "so distracted by them that [they] have to cheat later on."
Students play a cat-and-mouse game with teachers to keep from being caught, she said, turning the phone's sound down while on social media, sneaking peeps at phones under their desks, and hiding earbuds under long hair.
"Some teachers see it and call it out, but others are oblivious to it," said Gulluscio, 16. Some, she added, "gave up."
As districts consider various restrictions, some Long Island parents don't like the idea of separating their child from their phone in school, saying they may need to contact them in emergencies or for health reasons.
"There are families with health risks. They have to get in touch with their children right away," said Greg Fischer, a Riverhead parent with a daughter in high school. "There would be so many exceptions that a total ban is absurd."
Fischer said he favors a policy in which students silence their phones at the beginning of each class. If a student is spotted on their phone, the teacher would take it away until the class ends, he said.
Locking pouches for phones
The Sag Harbor school district is considering the purchase of small cloth pouches that magnetically lock away the devices. The company that makes the bags, called Yondr, made a presentation during the March 20 school board meeting, saying students would silence and store their phones as they enter the building. They keep the bags with them, and the phones could be removed as students exit the building.
Superintendent Jeff Nichols did not respond to requests for comment, but video recordings of school board meetings showed members reacting positively to the idea. Meanwhile, problems continue, said middle and high school Principal Brittany Carriero.
"We've seen increased pushback from students as well as a lack of attention in the classroom because they're attached to their cellphone," Carriero said during the March meeting.
The company would charge about $19,000 in the first year to outfit the 525 students in grades 6-12 and provide the locking and unlocking mechanisms, Nichols said during an April 3 meeting. The next year would cost about $7,500, he said.
Research shows links between excessive cellphone use and falling grades, depression, anxiety and short attention spans.
According to a 2021 study by Ariel University in Israel that reviewed 84 studies on the topic, cellphone overuse was associated with difficulties in cognitive-emotion regulation, impulsivity, impaired cognitive function, addiction to social networking and low self-esteem.
A few months ago, Brentwood school officials had students at South Middle School silence and store their cellphones in their backpacks and agree not to use them in classes unless instructed, Superintendent Richard Loeschner said.
The plan has met with "considerable success," Loeschner said.
In addition, the school has installed games such as knock hockey, checkers and chess in the cafeteria to get students to interact more with each other rather than their phones.
Cyberbullying — in which a person posts or sends messages about someone else that are intimidating, insulting or threatening — also has come on the radar of administrators, Loeschner said.
"It's a discipline problem if some students are ready to have an altercation," he said.
The Brentwood Board of Education is considering ways to reduce cellphone use in schools, he said.
Brentwood has brought in speakers to talk to students about the dangers of cellphone overuse and offered evening speakers for parents. Loeschner sent a letter to parents in March emphasizing the troubles with students obsessively checking their phones.
Melanie Baker, who has three sons in the Brentwood system, said the message rang with her. She believes that parents have to talk to their kids about the right way to behave with phones.
"We tell the kids that, as a member of this family, we maintain high expectations for them," Baker said. Regarding cellphones in class, she's told them: "We would not expect that you would be violators of this school policy."