As institutions that are often called upon to serve in loco parentis, schools take a variety of approaches towards the regulation of the mobile phone within their four walls and on their campuses.
When it comes to possession of a mobile phone during the school day, just 12% of teens with cell phones say that they can have a cell phone at their school at all times. A majority of teens (62%) say that they can have a cell phone at school but not in class, and another quarter of teens (24%) attend schools that forbid cell phones altogether.
Our focus group conversations support these findings and suggest that most schools treat phones as a disruptive force to be kept turned off and away from the classroom. Many teens talked about a tiered system based on a "if they can see it, they can take it" philosophy. An older high school girl describes a common system: "Yeah, it’s happened to me three times. The first time they take it for a day. They take it for a night and you don’t see it until the end of the next day of school. The second time they take it for a week, and the third time the rest of the semester." Other teens describe systems in schools that require parents to come to the school to retrieve the phones of wayward students.
Some schools allow limited use of cell phones, as this older high school girl explains, "At ours, you can have it in passing periods and lunch. And if they see it, it gets taken and I think the first time you go back at the end of the day and get it."
Some teens describe what feels like arbitrary enforcement or a lack of clarity around school rules for mobile phones. "I don’t text much in school. And we don’t really have, and our rules are just like whatever the teachers feels like," said one younger high school-age boy. "Some teachers give it to you at the end of the day, some after class, some keep it over the weekend if it’s like, Thursday or Friday." Others described schools "giving seniors leeway" with phones and teachers playing favorites or looking the other way around cell phone enforcement. Said one middle school girl, "At my school, it’s kind of messed up, but if you’re one of the favorites, and I’m one of the favorites with some of my teachers, they just let you use your phone."
A younger high school-age girl describes one teacher’s classroom policy: "Well, my teacher has a mind of her own, so she takes up the phones in class before class starts and then at the end she’ll give them back and then that’s not like the school policy. That’s just her policy, but if you don’t turn it in and it goes off, then it gets sent to the principal and your parents have to come pick it up." Another high school-age girl describes a creative teacher, who, "if she caught you texting, she’d pick up your phone in class and read the message." This is apparently an effective deterrent according to reports of teens in our focus groups.
Other teens report that their teachers use their own phones in class: "Well, it says in the book that you’re not supposed to have it, like if you have it, it’s supposed to be off and in your book bag or whatever, but like it’s extremely flexible. Like, some of my teachers even use their phone in class, so you can use it as long as it doesn’t make noise."
A few schools simply ban phones altogether: "We have absolutely no cell phones," said one older high school girl. "If you’re on school grounds, you can’t even use it in your car."
Despite these restrictions, teens are still overwhelmingly taking their phones to school – 77% take their phones with them to school every school day and another 7% take their phone to school at least several times a week. Less than 10% of teens take their phone to school less often and just 8% say they never take their phone to school.
While a higher percentage of teens who attend schools that forbid all cell phones say they never bring their phone to school (17% vs. 5% at other schools), nearly 65% of teens at "no phone" schools bring their cell phone to school every day, anyway. Four in five (81%) teens at schools where they may have a cell phone, just not in class, bring their phone to school everyday.
Further, many teens who take their phones to school are keeping them on and using them during the school day, sometimes during instructional time. Six in ten teens (60%) say they have their phone turned on at school at least once a day and sometimes several times a day. Just one-quarter of teens (23%) who take their phones to school say they never have them turned on during the school day.
Teens with carte blanche to have their phone with them at school are just as likely as teens who can have the phone, just not in class, to have their phone on several times during the school day. Some 49% of both groups report such behavior. Teens who are not allowed to have a phone at school are more likely to say they keep the phone off during the school day, with one-third (32%) saying they never turn their phones on, compared with 21% of teens who can have phones at school but not in class, and 16% of teens who have fewer restrictions.
More striking is the two-thirds of teens (64%) who tote their phones to school who say they have ever sent or received a text message during class. Nearly one-third (31%) of teens who take their phones to school text in class several times a day and another 12% of those teens say they text in class at least once a day. Fewer teens report that they place calls during class, though 4% manage to make calls from class several times a day and another 4% do so at least once a day. Fully 75% of teens who bring their phones to school say they never make calls during class time.
One middle school boy describes texting in class at his school: "When I’m in class, I just see people pull out their phone and try to be sneaky, and get past the teachers and try texting and stuff. Like, one time I tried that and my teacher caught me."
Teens in the focus groups described a myriad of ways to text in class without being caught – behind stacks of books, under desktops, inside of bags, and one even described having an older phone that he kept in his bag to surrender to teachers when he got caught texting in class. "I’ve got [a second phone] …if you get caught using your phone you can pull out a fake phone, turn it on and give it to them."
In-class texting varies little with regard to the aggressiveness of a school’s regulation of its students’ mobile phones – teens with full access to cell phones are just a bit more likely (71% to 58%) to say they send or receive texts in class than teens who attend schools that forbid phones altogether. Perhaps heartening to administrators is the finding that about a third of teens text frequently in class (31%), another third of teens (33%) text in class occasionally and a third (36%) say they never send text messages during class. These findings mostly hold regardless of the regulatory environment, although there are exceptions in the extremes of behavior. Teens in schools where phones are totally forbidden are slightly less likely to text in class several times a day, and are more likely to say they never text, than are teens who attend schools that allow cell phones at all times.
Roughly 25% of teens take their cell phones to school and say they have made a phone call on their cell phone during class, although most do so only infrequently. The data show that 13% of teens who bring their cell phones to school make a cell call during class less often than once a week and just 4% make such calls several times a week. Another 4% say they make calls at least once a day and yet another 4% say they make calls several times a day during class. There are few statistically significant differences on this question by school regulatory environment.
Girls and older teens are more likely than boys and younger teens to take their cell phones to school every day. Teens from lower income families are more likely to say that they make calls during class time several times a day, with 12% of teens whose parents earn less than $30,000 annually saying they make calls that frequently compared with just 2% of teens from wealthier families.