Our View: Show kids how to use smartphones the right way

The Westbrook School Committee voted last week to ban middle-school students from having their cellphones on them at all. They’d be foolish to think that the phones were going away.

Even if teachers and administrators succeed at keeping kids from accessing their phones during the school day – and that is a big “if” – students will get them out as soon as the final bell rings, and for the rest of their waking hours.

And if their parents are any indication, the phones will be a part of their everyday lives until some new technology replaces them.

So while schools should take every step necessary to help students succeed, including making sure they are paying closer attention to teachers than social media, they must also teach students how to properly use now-ubiquitous phones.

As advanced as they are, smartphones are still just tools, able to be used for all sorts of purposes, good and bad.

It’s alarming when phones are used to invade someone’s privacy or to bully them, as was apparently the case in Westbrook, where a fight between students built steam online before getting physical, at which point it was filmed and also distributed among students.

It’s like cases where students across the country are pivoting away from less restrictive policies toward student cellphones.

But phones can also be used for educational purposes. There are a variety of apps that allow students to get lessons and follow activities in ways that were not available before. They use the phones for more pedestrian tasks as well, such as research and the calculator function.

For some students, a smartphone may be the only way they can access the internet.

Smartphones are just part of life now. Today’s students have to know how to use them – and how to use them correctly.

Part of that is knowing when to use them, and how to recognize when they are hurting rather than helping.

Schools should set clear rules and expectations for cellphone use so that students know when in class they are expected to concentrate on the lesson, not their social media mentions. They should help students understand the risks and rewards that come from technology, and help them appreciate the value of face-to-face communication, rather than remaining glued to your phone.

Parents have to help, too, by reinforcing these lessons with their kids. Students are not the only ones who instinctively reach for their phones rather than have a moment of silence, or who stare at their screen when they should be engaged with the people around them. Parents need to model good phone behavior if they are going to get their kids to do the same.

But that doesn’t mean we should dismiss phones completely. Not only is that unrealistic, but it is also throwing risks out of the good with the bad.

Smartphones may pose a challenge to attention, and may make bullying a lot easier. But they can also connect kids to support networks, activities, ideas and information unavailable to them before.

It’s a new, difficult field to navigate, and students need help getting it right.

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