Heart Talk


Of Smartphones and Schools

By James Utt

With my size 11 sneakers, I am going to tread not so reverentially over sacred ground. The subject for today is American students and their smartphones.

There is a bill pending in Sacramento, put forth by Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, that would require school districts to adopt policies that limit or prohibit use of cell phones on school grounds. Some districts already have policies in place. The Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School Board adopted a policy that says all K-5 students must have their phones out of sight and turned off during school hours. That seems like a step in the right direction, but only a baby step.

Wondering if our district has any particular policy on this issue, I visited the district office. (Hey, good luck finding a place to park during school hours.) It turns out the district does, but one grapples with the question, “Is it enough?”

The policy says smartphones are to be turned off in class except when being used for a valid instructional purpose as determined by the teacher. Can they be out on the desk if turned off? I mention this because of a recent experiment done at the University of California at San Diego. In this experiment, students were divided into three groups before taking a test. One group had to leave their phones in another room, the second group was allowed to keep their phones in their pockets. The third group was told to keep their phones on their desks, turned off. Guess which group did most poorly on the test? That’s right, the last group. This suggests phones are a distraction, even when not in use.

There is a trend starting regarding students and cell phones and I hope we can be part of it. France recently banned cell phones in primary and middle schools. The London School of Economics and Political Science found that test scores improved in schools that banned cell phone usage. Scores improved the most among disadvantaged students.

In researching this column, I found a number of teachers have reported that recess behavior in primary and middle schools has changed and not for the better. Instead of running, and doing other physical activities, many students had their faces buried in their cell phone screens. Some might say this would be a refuge for shy students, but the hard fact is face-to-face interaction is a critical life skill.

There are numerous studies that show cell phones make it easier to cheat on tests. Teachers’ eyes cannot be everywhere. Trust me on this, I know. Cell phones also seem to make it easier for cyberbullies to spread their cruel ways.

I realize that calling for teens to have the use of their cell phones curtailed in some small ways is like standing at the waterline on Main Beach and ordering the tide not to come in. American parents, on average, give their child their first cell phone soon after age 10. (Bill Gates, who knows a thing or two about technology, did not allow his children to have cell phones until they were 14. All indications suggest they have turned out alright.) American teens text a staggering 3,000 times a month. This risks a generation who will become conversational cripples because they talk with their thumbs instead of their lips.

I wish that the Laguna Beach School District would follow France’s example and ban cell phones in primary and middle schools. At our high school, unless being used for a valid educational purpose, cell phones should not be seen.

Let me end this jeremiad with a warning for students and their parents. A Northwestern University study found that the more time people spend on their phones, the more likely they are to be depressed.

Kids, go walk your dog or visit a friend. Leave your cell phones behind. You will be free to think your own thoughts.


James Utt is the author of “Laguna Tales and Boomer Wails.” He hopes that people of all ages will reclaim the art of conversation.



  1. All good points Jim, Kids need to interact with each other, face to face in real time. BTW…Same can be said for adults…. at the dinner table, theater, while driving, business meetings.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here