Liz Kolb
Navigating the smartphone minefield: A guide for middle school leaders

Educators and parents have something in common when it comes to the kids in their care: They are both navigating the treacherous waters of media, devices and children.

Parents worry their children overuse screens, yet, they also fear that without the devices, their kids may fall behind socially, academically or be unsafe.

Educators are aware that parents like the quick access to their children, and they also know smartphones offer opportunities for learning. Yet the devices can also be distracting in school.

Many parents look to school leaders for guidance. They want recommendations for purchasing phones, using apps, keeping children safe and establishing screen time guidelines. Yet, schools tend to shy away from doling out this kind of advice.  

Schools should reconsider this aversion. After all, the average age for getting a cell phones is now 10, which makes middle school the ideal time to share advice and recommendations for parents. Creating student smartphone guidelines presents an opportunity for educators to partner with parents and children about the use of devices and digital mental health.

In addition, the ISTE Standards for Education Leaders advise administrators to cultivate responsible online behavior, including the safe, ethical and legal use of technology. 

While schools cannot tell a parent how they should manage the digital landscape at home, they most certainly can make recommendations based on informed research. Here are some tips, aimed at middle school leaders, for helping parents navigate and understand their students’ smartphone use:

1. Point to the research. Schools should make current research on all sides of smartphone ownership by tweens and teens available and easily accessible to parents.

2. Enlist teachers to help create guidelines — and expect them to follow those guidelines. Once you develop guidelines with the help of your staff, empower your teachers to be media mentors and share those guidelines with parents. Teachers should make parents aware of all the ways they are using cell phones for academic purposes (such as looking up a resource, sharing a poll, recording a group conversation) and they should follow the same rules as the students do: No personal texting in class, for example.

3. Give parents a checklist of student readiness for smartphone ownership. There are many factors to consider when determining if a child is ready for a cell phone, such as their impulse control, ability to handle responsibility, level of dependence on digital media, social maturity, level of anxiety or other mental health issues, social skills and others. Use this online checklist or develop one of your own.

4. Offer alternative ways to call home for students who don’t have phones. Don’t assume every student has a phone. Make sure every student knows they can use the school landline or borrow a teacher or coach’s phone if needed. Parents should be assured their students can get in touch even if they don’t have a cell phone. 

5. Develop a list of cell phone strategies for students. Educating students about cell phone strategies is the responsibility of all educators, from PE teachers to math, science and literature instructors. Use this list to get started or develop your own from scratch.

Liz Kolb is a clinical associate professor at The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She is the author of the ISTE books Learning First, Technology Second (2017), Toys to Tools: Connecting Student Cell Phones to Education (2008), and Cell Phones in the Classroom: A Practical Guide for the K-12 Educator (2011). She has published numerous articles and book chapters on new technologies and education in prominent publications, such as Education Leadership, Scholastic, Edutopia, and the ISTE Blog. Liz is a former social studies and computer technology teacher who spent four years as a technology coordinator and integration specialist in Ohio.

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