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Should Teachers Cave to Students' Cell Phone Habits?

A psychology professor tells The Fix about his controversial theory on giving students time to text during class.

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By Chrisanne Grise

08/13/12

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Most schools have rules about cell phone use, but that hardly stops students from going to the bathroom to send texts, or checking Facebook under their desks. Teachers often try to combat this by taking away phones during class time. But Dr. Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, has a different and startling suggestion: give in. Rosen—the author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us—thinks teachers should let kids use their phones for one minute, every 15 minutes—like a nicotine patch for people trying to quit smoking cigarettes. He claims that banning phones in class will just make kids focus on all the texts and posts they could be missing, but that letting them check periodically will help keep them calm. “They’re building up a bunch of chemicals in the brain that cause anxiety, and the act of looking at their phone is totally designed to reduce that anxiety,’” he tells The Fix. “It’s a stimulus to your brain saying, ‘Don’t worry. Don’t get anxious. You’ll get to check in shortly.’” He worked with a French teacher to test out the program, and found it to be a great success. “[The teacher] said the students were magically way more productive and they felt like they were being respected,” he says.

Not everyone buys Rosen’s theory, of course. Shawn Cerra, a principal in Coral Springs, Florida, is completely against the idea of cell phone breaks for his students. “If they see something that’s upsetting or disturbing or something of interest, it would be hard pressed for them to put the phone down and listen to World War II,” he argues. And many online commenters agree that educators shouldn't cave to students’ obsessions. “School needs to be serious and focused," writes one. "There's time for entertainment and socializing during lunch and recess breaks, after school, and on weekends...after homework and chores are finished!”

But Rosen accepts that learning to focus is essential: “You know that’s absolutely true, we are catering to our students' obsessions,” he admits when we ask him. “However, what I would say is that the goal here is learning. Do you want to have a group of distracted students or do you want to try to optimize the learning environment?” Studies have shown that students generally only focus for about five to ten minutes at a time before taking a mental break anyway; so Rosen says allowing them all to break at the same time would mean they can pay more attention later. “We have created this bitchin’ technology that’s so exciting and so interesting that we’re compelled to use it,” he says. “Now we’ve got to make sure these kids are given the best learning environment, not what we as old adults think is the best learning environment.”

 

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