Cell Phones Don't Contribute to Learning

Cell Phone CartoonPeople are using cell phones everywhere, even in schools, leading some school systems to ban them during the academic day. "Cell phones don't contribute to learning and are potentially a distraction," says Thomas Sherman, Virginia Tech professor of education. "There are already enough distractions; there's no need to add another."

Sherman, who researches how children learn, explains that cell phones may inhibit younger children from learning the full range of communication. "Cell phones mediate or 'stand between' people," he says. The words are sent but the non-verbal information is not. Some consider the voice tone, facial expression, and physical gestures as important to the meaning of a message as the words. When communication is frequently mediated, it is possible children will not learn these subtle aspects of communicating well. Today much communication is mediated with telephones, computer e-mail, and video. It is appropriate to limit this mediated communication with young children.

Modern cell phones are sophisticated devices that, like games, television sets, and computers, operate from screens. The idea of excessive "screen time" worries many educators. Children can spend two to four hours each day in front of screens. Much of this time has limited physical and mental activity. Often solitary entertainment screen time can occupy the majority of children's out of school free time. Educators recommend that children engage in active play, read, play social board games, and fantasy play. "Screen time" should be limited.

Sherman listed a few other reasons for not having cell phones in school including that the ringing can be a distraction. Cell phones could contribute to social inequities creating a new level of "have/have-not" distinction. There may also be a "keep up with Jones'" response as new and fancier phone technology comes along. Cell phones are small and getting smaller, thus, are easily lost and a potential target for theft.

"There are no good reasons for children to have cell phones," he says. One of the reasons frequently given for youngsters to have cell phones is to allow them to be able to contact someone in an emergency. "But schools are safe places so emergencies don't happen often," Sherman says. "Schools are good about recognizing emergencies and making the appropriate contacts. Besides, it is not good to give children the impression schools are unsafe - exactly the opposite of the truth.

"There really are no clear learning related uses," Sherman says, "and several disadvantages."

It also is not accurate for families to think that the cell phone is making it easier for daily planning. Sherman suggested that waiting until the last minute to make plans -thus necessitating a call to the child - is a poor model for children. It is a better model for children to be learning to plan and study with a longer perspective. Parents should keep children informed and within a well planned context.

"Young students don't need this electronic tether to home and parents. They should learn to make decisions and experience the consequences. If children, on their own, can't make, the decisions needed at school, they may never learn to be independent thinkers. We just don't need to be so 'connected,'" Sherman says.

Mary Ann Johnson

Copyright Virginia Tech. Used by permission.