Students scoff at a school cellphone ban. Until they really begin to think about it

Sherman Oaks, CA - July 03: William Schnider, a 17-year-old at Van Nuys High School and a student in the medical magnet program, is against the cellphone ban at LAUSD schools, and here he poses for a portrait at Van Nuys Sherman Oaks Park on Wednesday, July 3, 2024 in Sherman Oaks, CA. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
William Schnider, a 17-year-old rising senior at Van Nuys High School, is against the upcoming cellphone ban in Los Angeles schools but says he understands why it is going to be enacted. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Since William Schnider got his first iPhone in sixth grade, it's become an extension of his very being. By day it's nestled in his right pants pocket; by night it's within arm's reach. He rarely talks to people on his phone, instead communicating via Instagram groups, TikTok memes and texts. He syncs his calendar to his parents' phones.

So when William, a 17-year-old rising senior at Van Nuys High School, learned that cellphones would be banned across L.A. public schools, he instantly scoffed — like so many others.

"I don't see how it will work," he said. "I don't see how it's fair. Is this necessary?"

Yet after the initial shock and an absolute "no" is voiced by many teenage students, more nuanced thoughts emerge: Maybe we are falling into social media and cellphone addiction. Maybe all the distractions and the obsession with "likes" are bad for us. Maybe we need some relief.

A teen boy leans against a wall, holding his cellphone
William Schnider is in the Van Nuys High School medical careers magnet program. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The Board of Education's 5-2 decision to ban cellphones by January 2025 aims to change the behavior of a generation of students and will be one of the most consequential and closely watched shifts in schooling since students were forced to go to class online — many by phone — more than four years ago at the onset of the pandemic.

Details, such as how the rule will be enforced and where the phones will be stored during the schoolday, will be worked out in the coming months. But the goals are clear. School leaders say they want to combat classroom distractions that are impeding learning and to reduce the dangers of social media addiction. At this point, the leaders say, a strict phone ban is the only way to get students to talk to one another and their teachers and come to value face-to-face conversations over digital connections.

Read more: LAUSD approves cellphone ban as Newsom calls for statewide action

"I understand the intention of the ban," said Schnider, who is in a medical careers magnet program and wants to become a physical therapist or physician's assistant. "I definitely think phones can be addicting or distracting. It can be really easy to just hyper-analyze what you are putting out on social media. People — I — fall into that trap really easily. They start to base their self-worth on how many likes they get on their stories, how much their friends are commenting, things that aren't that consequential."

He's caught himself endlessly scrolling on Instagram or repeatedly checking how many people liked a story he posted recently of him and a friend on an outing to see "Inside Out 2." He's seen students in class turning to their phones when math instruction gets challenging.

He's also enjoyed finishing his assignments early during English and then playing the word game Connections with friends — with no teacher objection. Students with good grades like him, he said, don't need a phone ban. When two students were stabbed on campus in November and the school went on lockdown, William texted his mom to say he was safe. He wonders how emergencies will work without that option.

"For people with problems, this won't stop any addiction," Schnider said. "If you want to be addicted to your phone, you will be."

Los Angeles will join a growing movement in K-12 education to ban phones and has won the support of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has endorsed a bill to make such a rule to go statewide. Last year, Florida passed a policy to bar student cellphones from all K-12 classrooms. A similar law will go into effect in Indiana next year. In Ohio, new legislation will force schools to devise policies to "minimize students' use" of cellphones. New York City, the nation's largest school district, is poised to introduce a student cellphone ban this month that's similar to the one in Los Angeles, after dropping a prior ban in 2015.

For Angélica Zamora-Reyes, 17, a rising senior at Downtown Magnets High School, the ban can't come soon enough. She was among the dozens of L.A students who were interviewed by The Times — and expressed relief.

When her parents gave her an iPhone as a birthday gift three years ago, Angélica was excited because she was one of the last in her group of friends to get one. Over time, she came to see the pros and cons of digital devices.

A teen girl stands on a staircase looking at her cellphone and smiling
Angélica Zamora-Reyes, 17, pictured using her iPhone at her Los Angeles home on July 2, 2024, will be a senior this fall at Downtown Magnets High School. She supports a coming school district policy to ban students from having cellphones during the day. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

When Angélica took the public bus to an internship this summer, she texted her parents along the route to let them know she was safe. She has an Instagram account to connect with friends and watches YouTube videos, including campus tours and vlogs of students at USC and Harvard, her dream colleges. She also views online math video tutorials on Khan Academy.

Through her phone, Angélica, who lives near Historic Filipinotown and is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, found new ways to learn and expand her world beyond her corner of urban Los Angeles.

But she also saw the pitfalls of cellphones. Girls in her school can be "obsessed" with social media, comparing their clothes, weight and followings to other teens', she said. She recently looked at her screen time monitor — 2.5 hours by the afternoon on a late Thursday in June — and felt accomplished, contrasting herself to a cousin whose daily use was several times that number.

Angélica tries to keep her phone in her backpack side pocket during the schoolday. But even if she avoids using it, she gets distracted by other students on theirs.

She remembers an incident last year when an Advanced Placement class teacher gave instructions for an assignment but she could barely hear it over loud, ongoing laughter from two classmates engrossed in their phones.

"It was not just distracting but it felt disrespectful to the teacher and to any other student," Angélica said. She recalls wishing that all classes were like AP English, where her teacher banned phone use during class.

By the last semester of her senior year, she'll get that wish.

Read more: Too much screen time harms children, experts agree. So why do parents ignore them?

But thinking it over, she also has questions. Could she take out her phone to take photos of friends at lunch, as she often did last school year? Could she still use her phone occasionally in class to snap shots of the whiteboard instead of taking notes?

Under the approved ban, the answer is no. However, L.A. school officials said students will be included in the rule making and enforcement policies that will come before the school board in the fall.

"As much as it would be good if phones were banned, I see the positives of having them," Angélica said.

When another student at her school, Noreen Baig, first found out about the ban — from an Instagram post her mom sent via cellphone — she thought it was a hoax.

"A widespread ban is not OK," the 11th grader said. Some of her classes already ban phones.

She also worries about emergencies. Her school had several lockdowns last year; each time, she texted her mom to check in.

"Are all of us from one class supposed to now rush to the office to make a phone call?" Baig said. She also uses social media to find out when and where school clubs are meeting. During lunch, she finds her friends in the cafeteria through Instagram messaging.

"My phone is a part of me," Baig said. "LAUSD is trying to solve a small issue by taking away technology for everyone."

To many students, the reality of what a cellphone ban will mean is hard to grasp.

But not for A Quindel Peral, a rising eighth grader at Mark Twain Middle School.

Her mother, an algebra and data science teacher at Venice High School, was part of a team of teachers that initiated a school-wide phone-free program in March. A wears a Gabb watch to school, a simpler version of an Apple Watch that's designed to have limited functions — GPS and texting among them — so parents can keep in touch with kids. At home, A has access to a Wi-Fi-enabled iPad that she uses to text friends and play chess and Wordle.

A teenager looks at a cellphone while lying on a couch
A Quindel Peral will be in the eighth grade this fall at Mark Twain Middle School. Pictured in her home in Mar Vista, she supports the LAUSD cellphone ban. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

She's just one of two people in her group of middle-school friends without a phone. At first, A felt left out, even angry. Her parents say she'll get a phone when she starts high school, by which point the schoolday ban policy will be in place.

But going to school without a phone, A noticed she acted differently than other students. She was able to focus better and longer on assignments and reading. She noticed some classmates would hide their phones behind books during class, pretending to read while actually texting and scrolling. With the encouragement of her mom, she began learning more about teens and technology.

"Kids right now are in their critical growth era, basically. They're in a time in their lives when their brain is growing a lot. They're more susceptible to peer pressure," she said. "It's really important that we not abuse the power phones give us. It really just depends on how you are using it."

Still, she's looking forward to having a cellphone when the time comes. She's just not counting down to it the way she used to.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.