February 9, 2024

What recent school cellphone bans and the tech CEO Senate hearings can teach us about striking a balance and handling the pressure

Be sure to check out the suggested Huddle question at the bottom of this article to discuss this important topic with your students in class, if you feel it is appropriate.

It’s no secret that students spend a lot of time on their phones — including during school. A Common Sense Media study recently found that 97% of 11-to-17-year-olds use their phones at least once during the school day. The apps they’re turning to most frequently? YouTube, mobile games, and social media sites like TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram. 

Cell phone use during the school day can present challenges, like distractions during class and cyberbullying. Many schools have addressed these issues by prohibiting cell phone bans completely or for all non-academic purposes. 

In some cases, these bans have had positive effects: for example, at Timber Creek High School in Florida, students socialized more during break periods, and teachers noticed higher engagement and enthusiasm during class. In other cases, cell phone bans have resulted in pushback from students and caregivers, who argue the policies are overly restrictive or could keep students from reaching their families in an emergency. In one case in Houston last week, student protests led to a shelter-in-place order.     

Concerns about how social media affects students aren’t limited to classroom distractions. Also this month, the Senate Judiciary Committee called the CEOs of Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and YouTube to respond to accusations that social media is directly linked to poor self-esteem, physical harm, and exploitation among young people.

These stories are alarming, and wanting to keep students safe from tech and social media challenges is an understandable reaction. However, social media and tech are here to stay and, when used responsibly, can be a great learning tool and social outlet. With the right plan, educators can help students feel safe, engaged, and respected, even in potentially stressful situations. Let’s look at this recent news and strategies to foster students’ well-being as they navigate their online worlds.

A balancing act: Proposed cell phone ban at Houston High School sparks debate

Recent events at James Madison High School (JMHS) in Houston demonstrate the challenge of implementing school cell phone use policies that satisfy educators, students, and families. On February 2nd, JMHS went into lockdown after student protests broke out against an upcoming cell phone ban set to begin the following Monday. Under the new policy, students must turn in their phones upon arriving at school and can retrieve them at dismissal. 

Administrators argue that the ban was necessary as cell phones continued to play a role in fights at JMHS despite prior restrictions. Before the complete ban, JMHS allowed students to use phones for educational purposes at their teachers’ discretion.

Some students, however, found the ban oppressive, claiming it punished every student for the actions of only a few. Parents also expressed concern about not being able to get in touch with their children.

“We have responsibilities. Our moms might need to reach us. We need our phones,” Stephanie Martinez, a student at JMHS, told the Houston Chronicle. “We’re cool staying off our phones in class, but they shouldn’t just take them from us.”

JMHS is part of a trend: schools in Ohio, Colorado, Maryland, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and California have adopted similar measures. For educators in environments with these restrictions, it’s crucial to help students build positive habits and strike a balance in the time and attention they give to technology and the world around them. By instilling the right mindset and skills, educators empower students to interact positively online and enjoy social media’s benefits, yet stay focused during class and offline activities. This approach encourages academic success, well-being, and positive relationships with technology among students. 

Senate questions top tech CEOs on how they’re supporting students facing challenges on social media

Shortly before JMHS unveiled its new policy, tech CEOs from some of the students’ favorite apps, including TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram, responded to intense questioning from senators about social media’s effects. The hearing focused on concerns that social media enables sexual exploitation, drug use, and poor self-image among students. At different times in the hearings, the CEOs objected to, apologized for, and promised to fix these issues through measures like content restrictions. 

Senators also criticized the companies for lobbying against federal legislation regulating how young people use social platforms. One example is the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), a proposed law designed to protect people online. KOSA would require social platforms to provide resources and support services like counseling to people hurt by online interactions. The company leaders promised to back similar laws in the future but disagreed on which legislation to endorse.

This hearing highlights that while legislators and CEOs are working to make social media safer and more positive spaces, students may still face pressures online. 

One company is already taking steps to make social media a safer and more positive place online for students aged 13 and younger. Zigazoo is an online community built for students with their health and happiness in mind. We huddled up with the Co-Founder and Director of Impact, Leah Ringelstein, for some insights on why creating a positive social media platform is essential. She shared, “Young people use social media in their lives every day, and we need to reimagine what the platforms they engage with look like by backward planning from healthy outcomes.” 

Since students often look to educators for advice when making decisions and tackling problems, educators must know the common challenges students confront on social media and how to navigate them. After all, we can’t teach what we don’t understand. With this knowledge, we can better guide students to handle the pressure and healthily address mistakes.  

Empowering students to navigate tech responsibly: Strategies to build focus in the classroom and resilience to online pressures

Cell phones are an important, positive part of many students’ lives, with 84% using their phones to connect with other people and 83% to learn new things. The recent events at JMHS and national conversations about social media’s impact highlight how essential it is for students to balance their time and attention and find their own paths, no matter the pressure they may face from others. Here are some strategies educators can use to help students strike a balance and use their phones wisely.

  1. Teach students about apps and features on their phones that can encourage focus. Consistently using Do Not Disturb, screen time limits, or apps like Forest or Flora separates offline activities from screen time, making it easier to stay focused in class.     
  2. Build students’ time management and prioritization skills. Help students craft a daily schedule emphasizing finishing important tasks before using phones for fun. 
  3. Educate students on the impact of excessive screen time. While spending time on your phone isn’t wrong, looking at a screen for hours a day can negatively impact your healthsleep, and mood. Avoiding online distractions during school hours means more time online later without adverse effects.   
  4. Emphasize strategies for staying safe online. Setting accounts to “private” and only interacting online with people we know in real life protects us from potential dangers.   
  5. Help students handle online pressures. Consider offering resources and workshops on perseverance and stress management so students can confidently navigate peer pressure and uncomfortable online interactions and bounce back if they make a mistake.

To discover more ways to empower students to strike a balance with technology, check out the playbook Educators’ Role in Empowering Students to Strike a Balance with Technology. For tips on confidently handling pressures and making positive choices in stressful situations, preview the #WinAtSocial Lesson on managing external and internal pressures.

#WinAtSocial Huddle Question
Huddle with your students
Given the recent situation at JMHS, what role should cell phones play in schools? Should they stay out of the classroom, or can teachers incorporate them as a positive learning tool? If so, how can cellphones enhance learning without distracting students?


The Social Institute (TSI) is the leader in understanding student experiences and the creator of #WinAtSocial, a gamified, online learning platform that equips students, educators, and families to navigate social experiences — online and offline — in healthy ways. Our unique, student-respected approach incorporates topics like social media, technology use, and current events that have a significant impact on student well-being. Lessons teach life skills for the modern day to inspire high-character decisions that support the health, happiness, and future success of students while capturing data that provides insights to school leaders to inform school policy and communications and enable high-impact teaching and a healthy learning environment. For schools, our turnkey technology allows for easy implementation and a comprehensive game plan to support the well-being of school communities.