Is Banning Smartphones The Answer?

Schools are banning smartphones. Here’s an argument for why they shouldn’t — and what they should do instead.

Jack Doyle, 13, Ryan Ward, 14, Aiden Franz, 13, and Gray Rager, 14, use their cellphones during lunch at Westland Middle School in Bethesda, Md., in 2017. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
September 21

This fall, when French students returned to school for the 2018-2019 academic year, many could not take their smartphones to class. The French Parliament over the summer passed legislation that banned students up to age 15 from taking the devices to school — or, at the very least, requiring that they be turned off in class. The goal, according to the Agence France-Presse, was to try to break phone addiction and ensure that students were focusing on their schoolwork in class.

Such bans are increasingly being reported in schools around the world. In this post, a world-renowned educator takes a counterintuitive looks at these actions and offers a different approach. He is Pasi Sahlberg, former director general at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, and now a professor of education policy at the Gonski Institute for Education at Australia’s University of New South Wales in Sydney.

Sahlberg has lived and worked in the United States, including several years teaching at Harvard University and leading education work at the World Bank. A former math and science teacher in junior high and high school, he is the author of the best-selling books, “Finnish Lessons 2.0: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland” and this year’s “FinnishED Leadership: Four big, inexpensive ideas to transform education.

By Pasi Sahlberg

“The time has come to ban cellphones in the classroom.”

A blanket ban on cellphones in class would not be smart.”

These were the headlines of two op-eds published in Canadian daily newspapers in early September. This debate has already reached an international scale: Since 2012, most teenagers in rich countries have had access to smartphones.

In Kerry, Ireland, one school has restricted children’s use of smartphones and social media, not only in school but also outside school hours, with the full support of parents. In Scotland, the Parliament has considered putting limits on student’s cellphone use in schools. In July 2018, the French government banned all students under the age of 15 from using smartphones during school hours. The New South Wales Department of Education in Australia is carrying out a review into noneducational use of mobile devices in schools to see if they should follow France’s lead.

Why is this issue being raised now? One reason is this: Smartphones are everywhere. According to the Pew Research Center, 95 percent of teens in the United States have access to smartphones, and half of them say they are online practically all the time, including at nights. The Center for Media and Child Health at Harvard Medical School estimates that teens spend more than nine hours every day consuming media through their mobile devices. Half of American teenagers say they are “addicted” to their smartphones.

Second, many teachers and parents believe that smartphones disturb children and harm their learning in school. In the Canadian province of Alberta, for example, 3 in 4 teachers believe that students’ ability to focus on educational tasks has decreased in the past five years. Finland’s slippage in international student assessments has happened at the same time as teenagers’ increased screen time. Similar trends of stagnated or declining student achievement have been noted in many developed nations recently.

Third, children’s rapidly declining mental health has led many parents and teachers to wonder what is going on in their lives. If you have any doubts that these concerns couldn’t be real, consider these alarming findings:

  • San Diego State University professor Jean Twenge found that the number of American teenagers who feel joyless or useless jumped 33 percent between 2010 and 2015. In that same period, there was also a 50 percent increase in depressive symptoms among teens.
  • Australian psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg stated that in Australia, 1 in 7 primary school and 1 in 4 secondary school children suffer mental-health issues.
  • The National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland estimates that 20 to 25 percent of youths suffered mental health problems in 2017, an all-time high.
  • An Alberta Teachers Association’s survey showed that 85 to 90 percent of teachers think that the number of children with emotional, social and behavioral problems in their schools has increased in the past five years.
  • Evidence from around the world suggests that children do not sleep enough, do not eat enough healthful food and do not engage in enough daily outdoor physical activity.

Though it isn’t clear that smartphones are the cause, it isn’t clear they aren’t. So out of an abundance of caution, should they be altogether banned in schools?

Not so fast, some would say. Although many researchers believe that children’s rapidly growing use of smartphones may contribute to declining mental health and inability to learn well in school, it is difficult to prove that screen time alone is the main cause.

Blanket bans are rarely the most effective ways to fix human behavioral problems. Today’s children were born in a world where technology and digital gadgets were already a normal part of life. From an educational perspective, banning smartphones in schools would be an easy solution but not necessarily the smartest one.

Instead, we should teach children to live safe, responsible and healthful lives with and without their smartphones and other mobile devices. Education can be a powerful tool to teach children to exercise self-control and to live better lives. But schools can’t do this alone. “It takes a village to raise a child,” as the old African adage goes.

Here is how to get started:

1. Sleep more

More children than ever suffer from insufficient daily sleep. According to most pediatricians, school-age children (6 to 13 years old) need nine to 11 hours of sleep every night, and teenagers should sleep eight to 10 hours every night to function best. However, most teens do not get that much sleep. An American study recently found that in 2015, one-fourth of American adolescents slept less than seven hours a night. The National Sleep Foundation says that only 15 percent of teens sleep at least 8.5 hours a night during school week. It is common for teens to sleep with their smartphone and check what has happened during the night before saying “Good morning” to their parents.

Solution: Teach children the importance of sleep. Work with parents to agree on the rules that shut mobile devices down two hours before bedtime and keep them away from bedrooms. Assign children an hour’s extra sleep as homework. Keep a log about how children sleep, and monitor the effects of sleep on their well-being.

2. Play more outside

Children play less than ever. The American Academy of Pediatricsconcluded that because parents spend less time with their children outdoors, children are more engaged with technology, and because schools expects students to do more and faster, children’s opportunities to play have decreased. In many schools, children don’t play anymore. In 2016, just 13 U.S. states had legislation mandating recess for all children during school days. Research that author William Doyle and I used in writing “Let the Children Play” led us to conclude that play is a dying human activity in many education systems around the world.

Solution: Make 15-minute hourly recess a basic right for all children in school. Use schoolyard and nature for recess, play and physical activity as often as possible. Teach parents about the power of free outdoor play and encourage them to spend more time with their children outdoors. Assign homework that includes playing with one another or with parents. Keep a record of how more play and physical activity affects children’s learning and well-being.

3. Spend less time with digital media

Children spend much more time daily with digital devices than before. Many of them sleep less than they watch digital screens. Children often learn these habits from their parents. A recent British study found that about 51 percent of infants 6 to 11 months old use a touch screen daily. According to the Common Sense Media 2015 survey, U.S. teenagers’ average daily media use excluding time spent for school or for homework in 2015 was nearly nine hours.

Solution: Teach children responsible and safe use of technology. Talk about technology with children and help them to find the best ways to limit smartphone use in school and at home. As a parent or teacher, be a role model of regular media diets to children and keep smartphones away when they are not needed. Make technology a tool, not a treat for children in school and at home.

4. Read more books

Children read less than before, and so do adults. Half of children in the United States today love or like reading books for fun, compared with 60 percent in 2010. International reading literacy survey PIRLS 2016indicated a decline in recreational reading among Finnish children: 35 percent of fourth-graders read for pleasure. Boys read so little in Finland that 1 in 8 are functionally illiterate.

Solution: Make reading a habit. Advise parents to buy books and read them with their children. Read regularly and discuss what you read in school and at home. Let children choose what they want to read. Visit libraries and bookstores and meet with book authors. Read books you hold in your hands more than those you read on a screen.

5. Write letters to ones you love

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that 3 in 4 of 12th- and 8th-graders lack proficiency in writing. Snapchat cyber slang uses shortcuts, alternative words and symbols to convey thoughts in an electronic communication and writing. Ask any high school teacher or college professor for more evidence for the state of teenagers’ writing skills.

Solution: Make writing a habit in school. Coach students in good writing and give them regular feedback. Use pen and paper alongside electronic tools. Write a letter by hand to your grandmother or someone you love once a week.

The key to success in life is self-control. Longitudinal research studies, like the Dunedin Study in New Zealand, have shown that learned self-control in childhood is the best predictor of success in adulthood. The main purpose of the five steps above is to help children to regulate their own behaviors. Thoughtful reading and productive writing require the ability to focus, concentrate and pay attention to these activities long enough.

Sufficient daily sleep and more outdoor play help children to do better. They could therefore be more important keys to improving student learning and well-being in school than haphazard education policies and innovation that have been common mandates in schools around the world.

Kids’ Brainpower Tied to Exercise, Sleep and Limited Screen Time

The New York Times

At least 60 minutes of physical activity a day, nine to 11 hours of sleep a night, and no more than two hours a day of recreational screen time were tied to higher mental test scores.

Researchers tied three behaviors to higher scores on tests of mental ability in children: at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day, nine to 11 hours of sleep a night, and no more than two hours a day of recreational screen time.

The new study, in Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, included 4,524 children ages 8 to 11 who were assessed with six standard tests that measure language skills, memory, planning ability, and speed at completing mental tasks.

Compared with those who met none of the three behavioral criteria, those who met all of them scored about 4 percent higher on the combined tests. Meeting the requirements for both screen time and sleep was associated with a 5.1 percent increase in scores compared with those who met neither. Only 5 percent of the children met all three criteria, and nearly 30 percent met none.

“It may be that screen time is affecting sleep,” said the lead author, Jeremy J. Walsh, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia. “Sleep is a critical behavior for shaping our brains. Kids need to be sleeping nine to 11 hours a night for their cognitive development to be optimal.”

How to Teach Self-Regulation


To succeed in school, students need to be able to focus, control their emotions, and adjust to change.

August 22, 2018
Student sitting at a desk in the back of a classroom, taking a moment to collect himself
©Shutterstock/Tyler Olson

Many students enter our classrooms with psychological and learning issues, ADHD, or even adverse childhood experiences and trauma that affect their executive functioning and ability to self-regulate. They do not have the tools they need to focus and pay attention, keep their emotions in check, adjust to change, or handle the frustration that is sometimes a part of interacting with others or learning something new.

This can make it very challenging to complete required tasks in the classroom. As a middle school special education teacher, I quickly determined that in order to make learning accessible to these students, I had to first work on developing their self-regulation skills.

As a new teacher, you may also struggle with teaching effective self-regulation to students. These are some strategies that worked for me.


Teachers can set up their classrooms to provide the structure and learning tools necessary to help model and teach self-regulation.

  • A positive environment: The classroom should feel like a safe space where strengths are emphasized. When a problem behavior occurs, try not to take it personally or immediately correct the child in front of others. Instead, act as an observer with the goal of figuring out why the behavior is occurring. Then address the behavior once the child has cooled down.
  • Clear expectations: Schedules, procedures, and an established routine help students understand what to expect and create an environment that feels structured and safe.
  • Instruction on study skills: As teachers, we often focus on the curriculum, but in order to access content students need skills like the ability to organize their materials, manage their time, stay on task, read with comprehension, and retain and practice what is learned for later use on graded activities. Teaching study strategies to the whole class will help all students to become more independent learners.


When students seem off task or even shut down and refuse to complete work, sometimes it’s because the work is too difficult for them and they’re frustrated. I found that students often use this behavior because it has worked for them in the past by allowing them to escape the undesirable task and avoid the embarrassment of looking “dumb.” Instead of recognizing that they’re frustrated with the work, the student will often express frustration with the teacher for making them complete the assignment.

Scaffolding is breaking learning into chunks and then providing a strategy or a structure to make it easier for students to be able to accomplish each chunk of learning. In order to effectively scaffold instruction, you need to know what a child is capable of doing on their own. This instructional starting point, called the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD), is the difference between what a learner can do independently and what they’re able to do with informed assistance.

Starting your instruction at this point allows the student to move more easily to the next logical step developmentally. If a child is struggling, you can usually help them get started by taking a break, determining what they do understand, and then modifying the assignment so that it’s within their ZPD.


Kids need objective, nonjudgmental feedback in order to improve their behavior. When a problem arises, find a calm time to discuss what went wrong, why, and how it can be handled differently next time. This gives usable directions to students who do not already have a structure and the vocabulary needed to regulate their emotions.

If a student is familiar with this process, they may also be able to decompress by reflecting on their own, through a written activity, before talking with the teacher. Reflecting helps students to become more mindful: Instead of just reacting to emotions, they can learn to become the manager of their emotions by recognizing what they are feeling before it becomes an action.


Students often learn best when you show them how to do something through direct instruction. The same is true with behavior. If students are not displaying productive behavior, the teacher can show them what the effective behavior would look like through modeling activities like “think alouds” or role-playing.

Allow time for children to practice new behaviors they’re learning in a low-stakes way that breaks the desirable behavior into achievable steps. As a classroom teacher, I practiced improving transitions with a group by providing a visual and auditory cue (flicking the lights and clapping my hands). Students knew to stop what they were doing and return to their seat. At first, I gave them several minutes to do this and rewarded students who were in their seats, even if they were a bit loud getting there. Gradually, I decreased the time given and only gave rewards to students who were sitting quietly and listening for directions with their materials out, ready to work.

I found that thinking about behavior objectively, as a skill to be taught rather than simply as good or bad, was immensely helpful in my ability to guide children in learning to control their behavior. Some children enter school without the self-regulation skills necessary for school success. We must meet these children where they are and teach them the skills they need to be successful in the classroom.

10 habits to shape a kind, well-adjusted child



























Angst Documentary

The documentary Angst will be shown at Bowtie Cinemas in Greenwich on September 20 @ 7

Angst is a 56-minute film that explores anxiety its causes, effects and what we can do about it.

The filmmakers’ goal is to have a global conversation and raise awareness around anxiety. Angst features candid interviews with kids and young adults who suffer, or have suffered, from anxiety and what they’ve learned about it. The film includes discussions with mental health experts about the causes of anxiety and its sociological effects, as well as help, resources and tools.

Image result for angst movie

Social Media, Social Life: Teens Reveal Their Experiences (2018)

Common Sense Media

VR 101

Social media platforms are central to every aspect of teens’ lives, from how they stay in touch with friends to how they engage with politics. And constantly refreshing their social feeds can feel simultaneously positive and negative: Teens say social media strengthens their relationships but also distracts them from in-person connection.

Social Media, Social Life: Teens Reveal Their Experiences sheds light on teens’ changing social media habits and why some kids are more deeply affected by — and connected to — their digital worlds. The report is a nationally representative survey of more than 1,000 kids age 13 to 17. And because it tracks changes from 2012 to today, we can see how teens’ social media use continues to evolve. Read the full report

How do I get my daughter to enjoy outings with me — and no friends along?

(Washington Post illustration/Prisma Filter/iStock)
August 29

Q: My 8-year-old daughter only seems to want to do things with friends her age. I take her to do fun things all the time, too, just the two of us. We go to the park, the children’s museum, botanical gardens, everything you could think of, and it’s like pulling teeth. She only wants to do things on play dates. For instance, she’ll complain all day at the park, but if I bring my friend’s daughter, she’ll enjoy herself all day and ask to stay late. I know she’s a social butterfly, but I need her to learn how to entertain herself. I can’t organize a play date every day, even if I wanted to. Any advice?

A: When you said it is like pulling teeth to take your child to botanical gardens, museums and parks every day, I thought: “Can I be your child?” You sound like an awesome parent who is doing their best to enrich their child’s life. And so, I say this with love: Slow it down.

You are not alone in this push and pull of trying to spend time with your child alone, as well as trying to satisfy her need to be with friends. I know countless parents who complain of their extroverted children begging them daily for play dates, even when the parents have said no, or the schedule doesn’t allow it. This dynamic is even harder when the parent is more introverted than the child. Introverted parents can often feel exhausted by their own children, so add another child and her needs to the mix? The parent can feel overwhelmed and not positive about the outing.

Even if you are not introverted, there are other reasons a child should not have constant play dates. First, children benefit from playing with others, but there comes a point where a lack of leadership and wisdom can creep in. This means whichever child has the stronger personality (and one always wins out) will unconsciously seek to dominate the other child. This is when play can turn bossy and controlling rather than collaborative and fun. I am not saying every play date turns into this, but when children spend too much time together without adult supervision, this dynamic is more likely.

The second reason you shouldn’t give in to every play date is because an 8-year-old is not in charge of the family. Whether it is because of travel time, cost or simply being sick of dragging other children around, the parent sets the boundaries, not the child. By telling your child, “No, we are not bringing Janet to the park with us today,” without apology or wavering, you are teaching her to deal with a boundary. Of course we want our children to have fun, but we create a nightmare when we don’t enforce simple and clear rules.

If your daughter is pushing your boundary with begging, pushing or throwing fits, she is (unconsciously) trying to wear you down. Don’t give in. The small boundary held now will lead to an ease in holding bigger boundaries later, and trust me, you want that ease.

The third reason your child doesn’t need play dates is that boredom is the window to creativity, and whenever your daughter has someone with her, her mind doesn’t have a break to wander. Between school and technology, our children have an ever-growing need to simply “be,” but this is difficult when the child is both extroverted and conditioned to having someone with her at all times. The whining and tantrums for play dates and entertainment can wear down even the most patient parent. The reason your child cannot entertain herself is because she is being constantly entertained, either through play dates or even with activities with just the two of you.

So, what are you supposed to do? Not allow anymore play dates? Of course not. We want to strike a balance between your child enjoying her growing friendships and finding her own creativity. Here are a couple of ideas:

• Stop trying to impress her with outings. You are not a cruise director, so although parks are awesome, you don’t have to go to a museum or fancy garden every time you take her somewhere. Whether you bring her friend or not, pare down the outings to activities around your community, neighborhood or backyard. If you live in an area with gardens and museums, awesome; just don’t go out of your way to make everything “special.” Keep activities simple (kicking soccer balls, making slime, baking, bike riding), and give her time to experience her own creativity. The burden of making sure your child loves every structured experience is unfair to both of you.

• Call a meeting with your daughter, take out your calendar and make a plan. There are weekends and after-school time, and between you and your child, decide what makes sense for your family and schedule. Your daughter may not love that she cannot invite Irene to every outing, but having a meeting gives your daughter a voice — a way to offer her opinions and desires in a way that is respected and heard by you. Creating a calendar together can also head off some of the “pulling teeth” feelings, because you both decided the plan ahead of time. These meetings are by no means a cure-all, but they offer a calm, organized and kind way to communicate.

Good luck!