Every teacher today knows The Battle of the Cell Phones. It starts from the moment the bell rings (if you have bells) and goes until the very. Last. Second. Of class. It happens every day. All year long. No matter what you do.
“But I’m done with what you told me to do.”
“I’m just listening to music.”
“My [mom/dad/grandma/brother/coach] is texting me.”
“I’m looking something up.”
I’m sure you’ve heard them all, teacher friends, and more. My favorite was the kid who had set six different contacts to be named some variation of “Mom” (Mama, Mum, Madre, etc.) so it actually looked like she was texting her mom all the time. Oy.
There are all sorts of interesting studies showing how people might be addicted to their cell phones. The description of this one, from Baylor University and published in 2014, explains how approximately 60% of college students self-identified as being addicted to their cell phones. This is confirmed by a poll given two years later by Common Sense Media, which indicated 50% of teens feel addicted to their cell phones.
Some of the reason for this might be access. These charts show how people who are younger and/or poorer use their cell phone as their only access to the internet. In a world where you need an email account to sign up for…basically everything…it makes sense that smart phones are becoming indispensable.
There’s also really interesting research out there that people who have experienced trauma are more likely to expect traumatic experiences in the future. Many of my students who come from uncertain home lives lose their minds when I take their phones because they’re afraid of an emergency happening while I have it. Last year, when my colleague was killed in a car accident, I experienced some of the same feeling.
One of the most addicting things on the internet is social media. A 2012 Harvard study showed that disclosing personal information activated the same pleasure-reward pathways in the brain as food, money, and sex. A study from the University of Albany, published in 2014, explains other reasons why social media, Facebook in this example, is so addicting:
“New notifications or the latest content on your newsfeed acts as a reward. Not being able to predict when new content is posted encourages us to check back frequently. This uncertainty about when a new reward is available is known as a ‘variable interval schedule of reinforcement’ and is highly effective in establishing habitual behaviors that are resistant to extinction. Facebook is also making it easy for users to continuously be connected to its platform, for example by offering push notifications to mobile devices.”
How is a teacher to compete with all of that? No wonder we face The Battle of the Cell Phones every day.
I start every single class by asking students to put their cell phones in their backpacks. Not under their textbooks, not in their laps, not in their pockets. Backpacks. I feel like Dora the Explorer after a while, as I repeat “Backpack, backpack,” over and over! (On that note, perhaps I should start singing the song…) As they creep back out I’ll drum my foot against chair legs and after a warning (or six, depending on how distracted I am) the cell phone gets to live in my desk drawer.
My mentor teacher (and many teachers in my building) use a cell phone box. I had a hard time with students taking their phone back out of the box without asking me and worse, taking each other’s phones. I eventually settled on my desk drawer (or my pockets) to help keep the phones safer.
I’ve seen teachers fight The Battle of the Cell Phones many ways. Some have pockets or cubbies for them, and take attendance by the presence of the cell phone in the cubby. Some try to embrace the phone and get students to use them for educational reasons instead. If you’ve figured out something that works for you, teacher friends, go for it. And share it!
What’s really horrifying to me, though, is The Other Battle of the Cell Phones. The one that happens at staff meetings. In cars. At customer service counters. Adults (me included, in some situations) aren’t any better at their phones than my students are. It’s flat-out terrible for the attention. If you’re curious about attention, try Googling “cell phones and attention,” “switch-tasking and multi-tasking” and “texting and driving training”.
No one, students included, can pay attention while they have their cell phones out. So how do I create an environment where students can pay attention? By limiting the phones that are out, for sure. But also by creating engaging lessons.
Now, teacher friends, I will tell you that I ABSOLUTELY HATE IT when that’s the solution. In my head, I’m always thinking Oh gee, thanks a lot for that. I never would have thought of that myself. Someone want to show me HOW? And I can tell you that I still haven’t figured it out. Lessons I thought would be terribly boring engage kids, possibly because of the easy opportunity to feel successful. Lessons I thought would be super engaging fall flat. But I do know that when my kids’ hands are full of test tubes of paramecium or markers or their telling each other a story about science, the phones don’t creep out quite as quickly.
It’s not completely on me to make my classroom the most interesting place in the world for every single student every single day. That’s impossible. But by increasing the attention students give to my classroom and decreasing the possible attention they can give their phones, someday I might just win The Battle of the Cell Phones. Maybe. For a day.
Your homework: How does your cell phone or your social media affect your attention? When are you on it the most and/or the least?