Spotlight Features

Cell Phones at School: Nuisance or Necessity?

The use of cell phones at school has generated conflict between school officials, who view cell phones as a nuisance that distracts students from school activities, and parents, who say the devices let them stay in touch with their children more easily.

Widespread cell phone use at schools clearly is controversial, but software companies, handset vendors, and carriers are jumping into the debate and trying to help proponents and opponents find common ground.

Many students use cell phones, and that number is growing. Meanwhile, carriers and cell phone suppliers have expanded their markets to a near-saturation point among adults.

“Companies such as Walt Disney have developed cell phones targeted at children, and the devices are gaining traction,” said Neil Strother, an industry analyst with The NPD Group.

Cell phones are ubiquitous in high school, common in middle school, and making their way into elementary school. Seventy percent of students in grades six through 12 and 61 percent of students in grades three through six use a cell phone either during school or on their free time, according to NetDay, a national nonprofit group that promotes the use of technology in schools.

Problems Holding the Line

Such widespread cell phone usage begets problems; most obviously, it distracts students during the school day. Instead of focusing on the teacher, they concentrate on ringing or vibrating phones or on reading text messages.

Cheating is also an issue. A survey published by Who’s Who in American High School Students found that 98 percent of students now cheat, which entails copying homework as well as violating exam rules.

For example, during a test, students might exchange text messages that contain answers to questions. Cell phones with built-in cameras present additional problems — students can easily share photos of exams with classmates.

From the Locker Room to the Internet

On an even more serious note, the Internet is rife with examples of students using cell phones to snap and post inappropriate pictures of their peers inside restrooms or locker rooms.

School administrators have developed a variety of policies to deal with these issues. “The majority of schools have officially banned cell phones,” Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, told TechNewsWorld.

In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein implemented such a ban to deal with these and other problems — for instance, students used cell phones to organize gang activities. Also, phones were often stolen. The city has restricted the use of beepers since the late 1980s, and it prohibits the use of other electronic devices, such as iPods.

Rather than hounding students about phone use, some schools officially ban cell phones but take an “out-of-sight, out-of-trouble” approach to enforcement. If students do not make their phone use obvious, teachers and administrators do not bother them.

“I feel these policies are an unfair and unrealistic temptation and about as likely to be successful as giving me a chocolate bar with almonds and telling me to hold it for six hours without eating it,” said Trump. “It isn’t going to happen!”

Parents Want Control

When schools restrict cell phone use, the opposition mobilizes. After polling 1,000 U.S. parents, AceComm found that 95 percent of them want to remain in control of their child’s cellular phone use rather than have schools set the rules.

Parents want their children to carry phones for a number of reasons. The first is safety — if a Columbine-type of attack should ever take place, they would want to be able to contact their children.

This use of cell phones would be detrimental rather the beneficial, Trump claimed. If hundreds of students were to make calls simultaneously during a crisis, then the result could be increased confusion or jammed emergency phone lines.

Scheduling is another major issue for parents. Students’ days are often filled with extracurricular activities such as sports, music lessons, dance classes, and club meetings. When plans change, or a parent or a student is running late, a cell phone comes in handy.

Where Is Jimmy Now?

For parents, it all comes down to monitoring their children’s whereabouts before, during, and after school. “Many of the devices come with GPS (global positioning system) features, so parents can track their children and make sure they go where they’re supposed to go,” said Lizet Tirres, program manager at Frost & Sullivan.

In New York City, some parents feel so strongly about the city’s cell phone restrictions that they have sued the school district to force a policy change.

Less confrontational options are emerging. AceComm’s Parent Patrol software enables parents to program a cell phone to permit calls to and from only certain phone numbers.

Another option is the use of less functional handsets; for example, cell phone manufacturers can disable camera phone and text messaging functions.

Chinese handset supplier Akoja has developed a special purpose phone, dubbed “Nakamiki Children GSM Cell Phone,” that looks like a teddy bear and features preprogrammed, touch-activated speed dialing and a special SOS function that notifies three designated persons that the child might be in danger.

The number of new monitoring functions and special-purpose cell phones is expected to increase in the coming months. “More and more children are using cell phones, so the industry needs to develop better ways to balance the concerns of schools and parents,” concluded NPD Group’s Strother.

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