The Smart Phone Battle

Leave the Book at Home – BYOD

If you’re like me and teach in today’s high school system, you have no choice but to deal with the cell phone epidemic every single day. Today’s electronic devices are incredibly powerful. They are an instantaneous access to knowledge at a moment’s notice. It’s like you don’t ever have to really “know something” anymore, because as students will tell you- “All you have to do is Google it”. However, as many benefits as there are to our electronic dog collars. I am always reminded of the famous words of Albert Einstein who once said: “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. “

I think his message is clearer today than it was 70 years ago. As the technology becomes more and more invasive and encapsulating, I  have noticed in recent  years that the cases of cell phone addiction have increased dramatically in my classes with my students. No longer will you ever see a kid without the phone in their hands, playing with something, or listening to music. Sure, I had a Walkman growing up, but as far as I can remember we actually took the headsets off from time to time. Nowadays it’s not uncommon to see droves of high school kids all walking with earbuds in sync with each other, yet not really communicating on a level that we would recognize.  If you walk in my quad at lunch, what you notice is not how noisy it is but the exact opposite. Everyone is engaged in a texting frenzy with friends literally standing 2 feet away from them.

This past week French President Macron has passed legislation banning cell phone usage for students under age 15 across France. The logic for this is simple, students need to learn to interact with each other. “Students need to be free of the constraints a phone imposes on students” (my best translation, but you get the idea). It takes away the distraction and allows students to learn.  As LaMonde, the famous French newspaper reported; cell phones are a “subject of fundamental social, an issue of public health”.  If you can believe it, this President actually campaigned on this topic and won! The people in Europe acknowledge the danger of the smartphone and social media embedding itself in their culture and society. (

So why don’t we do something similar here? Are you kidding me? Imagine a politician or board member taking a stand on this. Take away a kid’s cell phone so they can learn something? It will never happen. (Merika…) In New York not too long ago Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to pass a similar ban in city schools in 2006. However, the parents complained so hard the new rules were rolled back not long after. So what is the answer? Should we go with a no cell phone policy blanket in all schools? A universal ban like the French?

The argument is actually hard when we see some teachers using phones for some pretty serious academic endeavors. For instance in science class, newer Apps have the ability to use the phones accelerometers and collect GPS data. We can use them as mini tricorders if you will, akin to Star Trek. The phone’s sensors can give us all kinds of stuff to experiment with when using the right Apps. These new technologies are at the forefront and probably should be used in classrooms. But what happens when kids abuse them. Then what? In some school districts, cell phones are not permitted without the instructor’s permission, however, in others, the instructor is NOT allowed to take the phone away from a student who violates that cell phone usage policy. This is when it becomes tricky, and this where my lawyer friends can all start to chime in… What rights do kids have at possessing this technology during the school day? I am posing a question for debate here…

My last post on Facebook about the subject elicited over 50 remarks and messages under a day. So apparently we all have strong opinions about this.  My brother in law who teaches in the East valley actually has a shoe rack hanging in his classroom that acts as his cell phone jail.  In their community, cell phone usage is curbed and only used when necessary. His kids are taught to put them away and they do so effectively. In other cases, and in lower grades that luxury sometimes doesn’t exist and so then what? Many of the folks I interviewed for this piece stated that the technology is useful, however, we need to teach proper protocol and usage. I can get behind this idea. I personally believe we should allow teachers the choice to decide on its usage, however, let me share with you my 2 cents on why I demand that cell phones get put away during class. Again, I’m going off the science and research.

What I think many people don’t realize is that we as teachers without realizing it, deal in brain chemistry. Young minds are still forming quite literally at the gray matter core. I have read lots of research into this, not to mention my brother has a Ph.D. in this field so I can state here in my blog I am confident that what I am telling you is true. Recent research has proven that extended use of this technology in minors has a quantitative effect and connection to executive functioning. Researchers in the UK, Korea, and the United States have all come out with independent studies that confirm that cell phone addiction has an effect on depression, anxiety, insomnia, and impulsivity. At a deeper level, brain scans show that gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical that causes brain cells to become more electrically excited  also effects vision and motor control.

The best article I have read on the subject states that cell phones at their fundamental level hijack your physiological biases and vulnerabilities. In other words, app designers purposefully push people’s buttons to keep them connected 24/7 in order to spread their message and content whatever it may be. Game programmers would call it, a “first order optimal strategy”.

Ever wonder why your smartphones sometimes sound like a slot machine? The sound pitches used are nearly identical. Does your phone swipe? On average most people swipe on a phone 150+ times. For kids its much higher. The reason very simply is “intermittent variable rewards”. In other words, your phone is the “treat”. Just like pulling a lever in a casino, the reward is the tweet, e-mail, text from your buddy or friend, and kids early on are becoming addicted to this technology to the point that they literally cannot function without that technology in their pocket. I have seen kids literally freak out and meltdown when they lost a cell phone in school. Addiction comes in many forms and we are foolish to think that allowing such technologies to go unchecked will not have massive social consequences on our next generations.

In addition to this research there is evidence which has shown that in order to perform higher level thinking, the brain needs focus. Trying to solve multi-level math problems is much more difficult when you are constantly de-focusing to check your snap chat feed. The brain is a muscle and needs to get worked out. Getting off that treadmill every 3 mins kind of kills the mental workout.

I actually read parts of these studies to my students. The idea is to make them think, but also you try to get them to realize that being disconnected if even for the 50 mins I have them in class, can be beneficial and a good thing.  When kids are not distracted by the pocket Casino, they can focus on what’s in front of them. But at the end of the day you do what you want to do. Its America after all and we have rights….



Mike Vargas

My name is Mike Vargas. I am a proud recipient of the 2014 ASTA Arizona HS Science Teacher of the Year award and I am a 2016 AEF Arizona Teacher of the Year Ambassador for Excellence. I earned my undergraduate degree from Northern Arizona University where I was Vice – President of the Associated Students, a recipient of the Gold Axe, and President’s Prize awards. I am an advocate for physics first instruction and I am leading a movement to double the current number of physics teachers in Arizona in the next 5 years. I teach high school physics at Pinnacle High School in the Paradise Valley Unified School District.

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