Putting phones in lockup: is this the new ‘trend’ for managing student smartphone use in schools?

With restrictive approaches to students’ uses of smartphones in schools, it is important to ask: how do school actually manage these restrictions in practice?

Phone use in schools is often restricted and students are asked to keep them out of sight

In our last blog post, we discussed the growing trend in secondary schools to adopt a more restrictive approach towards student smartphone use. In such schools, smartphones are not allowed to be used by students at any point during the school day. At the same time, schools that do permit smartphone use, for example during lunch and break times, tend to also have a restrictive requirement that phones are not to be seen or heard during lessons. Considering this trend of restrictive approaches to students’ uses of smartphones in schools, it is important to ask: how do schools actually manage these restrictions in practice?

Secondary school policies regarding student smartphone use often consider how smartphones should be stored during the school day, such as being kept in students’ bags, in their lockers, or, more rarely, handed in at the front of class. To enforce this further, some schools apply sanctions to remove smartphones when not used in accordance with the policy, by placing them behind reception or in a safe at the school, which could be for a day, a week, or even until the end of term. However, some schools have chosen to follow a different route, essentially locking away students’ phones, inside boxes or pouches. This approach ensures that students are unable to access their devices at school, either during lessons or for the whole day, as per school rules. Put simply these products enforce a ‘locative disconnection’ – which is a disconnection to one’s phone, localised to a specific place (i.e. school) and time (school hours).

Two of these technologies are the Yondr pouch, and the Phone Away Box. The Yondr pouch is made of a strong synthetic rubber, which is very difficult to break into. It is locked with a magnet, such as those typically found attached to clothing in shops to prevent theft, and can only be unlocked with a counter-magnet. In schools utilising this technology, students keep their phone in their possession, but are unable to access it until teachers unlock them. The Phone Away Box is a see-through box attached to the outside of each students’ locker, which they store their phones in according to school rules. This provides teachers with the opportunity to easily see if any phones are not where they are supposed to be.

 The Phone Away Box is a see-through box attached to the outside of each students’ locker, which they store their phones in according to school rules.

Teachers in schools adopting the Yondr pouch have said that distraction due to phones was becoming a big problem in class, and that simply telling students not to use them can be challenging to enforce. For example, teachers are unable to check inside all students’ bags and lockers or follow them into the bathroom for the 10th time that day. Through visiting schools as part of the SMART Schools Study, teachers have told us of the difficulty of managing smartphone use among a large class, particularly when their focus should be on providing education.

While writing this blog post, we reached out to the founder of the Phone Away Box, Karl Hegarty, who reiterated these points, and stated that phones in the school environment also create confrontation between teachers and students, and can even instigate disputes between school staff and parents. 

“Currently, student mobile phones in schools are causing classroom disruption, confrontation between teachers and students, and students are getting too easily distracted”

However, even with these challenges posed by smartphones within schools, Karl still identified the value of them in an educational context. He felt that students need to be educated on the appropriate use of smartphones, and identified this alternative approach to managing phones facilitated an environment where smartphones can be used appropriately.

These ‘lockable’ or ‘timeout’ approaches to smartphone management have been suggested to make disconnection from phones easier and more enforceable, which is a key motive for their use in schools. Teachers in schools employing these approaches have also witnessed many other positive changes resulting from their use. This has included an improvement to grades, a decline in behavioural incidents, and less conflict between staff and students, therefore boosting the learning environment. Moreover, these schools which are putting phones “in prison” so to speak, are apparently much noisier places now, with students interacting with each other more; they socialise and play sports instead of having their heads buried in their smartphones. As Karl Hegarty (founder of the Phone Away Box) told us:

“…there is the re-emergence of simple conversation between students during lunch breaks. Suddenly talking is cool.”

Although sometimes met with initial scepticism by students in schools adopting these alternative approaches to phone management, they too have expressed positive opinions of them. Students at a UK school using the Yondr pouch have reported to local media that they feel less distracted during lessons and are able to focus more on their education. They also said they help to prevent cyberbullying. A common theme, reported by students using the Yondr pouches in Australia and the USA, is that they are now spending more time talking to each other, both in class and during breaks and lunchtime. They are also socialising with new people, as they no longer have the ability to use their phone as crutch. In a school in the USA which uses the Yondr pouches, one student noted that even those who hate the pouches have found that they’ve sparked conversation, because the shared experience of having something to hate can itself be a topic of conversation. Finally, locking away students’ smartphones enforces a digital detox, which ensures they have some time away from their device, something the head girl at a UK School using the Yondr pouch said had improved students’ overall wellbeing.

Given the positive influence of these alternative approaches to phone management as described in this blog post, it appears as though their use shows some real promise in school settings, but how feasible is it to roll them out on a large scale? Schools are already facing huge pressure financially, and these products might therefore be seen as a luxury and not a necessity. They may be cost effective in the long run, giving teachers a chance to focus more time on teaching, without the disruption caused by smartphones, but finding the budget upfront may be challenging for some schools (each pouch/box costing approximately £20).

The use of these strict management strategies also begs the question of whether locking students’ phones away is another attempt to ignore smartphones and their impact. For a generation whose phones are, and will likely continue to be, part of their everyday life, should we be imprisoning this potential powerful learning device? A teacher at a UK school says that the pouches actually place learning at the heart of phone use; they ensure phones are locked away when not required, thus minimising distraction, but allow teachers to unlock them to be used as a learning tool when desired. Perhaps this teaches students a lesson about the appropriate use of smartphones? The creator of the Yondr pouch has himself said that the focus isn’t on banning phones, but to change the etiquette in the way they are used. Similarly, the founder of the Phone Away Box calls it a ‘plan not a ban’.

Innovations like these are new, and as yet, there is a lack of research exploring the use of these alternative products in schools. Whether they are here to stay, or are just a fad, soon to be outdated with the fast-paced world of technology remains to be seen. Indeed, students have already found workarounds for these products, but this hasn’t stopped over 1000 schools in the USA from signing up to the Yondr pouch in an effort to keep students off their phones. And it’s not only schools using such products, as they are also a popular phone management strategy at concerts and live gigs, and patrons of restaurants may also be asked to lock their phones away, something that members of the SMART Schools Study research team have experienced. What is clear is that these products help to support the ways in which schools want to manage mobile phones, and with teenage smartphone ownership being very high (>93%), and teachers only having one pair of eyes, the appeal of putting phones in ‘lockup’ might be too good to resist.


SMART Schools Study Update

Following a very successful recruitment drive at the start of this year, data collection for the SMART Schools Study is now well underway. We have completed data collection in approximately 15 schools and collected data from 669 pupils so far. We also have several schools booked in for data collection over the coming months, making it a busy time for the SMART Schools Study research team. If you would like to know more about our timely research, please do not hesitate to get in touch at: smartstudy@contacts.bham.ac.uk


Meet the Researcher – Dr Grace Wood

Dr Grace Wood is a research fellow of the SMART Schools Study, taking place at the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Birmingham.

What is your academic background?

I recently completed a PhD at the University of Birmingham, where I researched how urban environments can be optimised to promote active and healthy ageing using a citizen science approach. Prior to this, I completed an MSc in Environmental Management and Sustainable Development at Manchester Metropolitan University, where my dissertation explored accessible urban green spaces for older adults with and without dementia.

Why are you interested in adolescents’ use of smartphones and social media?

I feel technology, and in particular smartphones and social media, have progressed significantly in the last decade. For me, this experience has meant owning a device where you can play snake and send text messages, to now owning a device that has a world of information and communication in your hand. This presents a really valuable resource, but one that also still has a lot of questions in terms of impact and management. I am really interested in understanding how adolescents are impacted by smartphones and social media, and finding ways in which they can be used so that they promote adolescent mental health and wellbeing.

Can you tell us something interesting about yourself?

I have heterochromia, so my eyes are both blue and brown in colour.

What you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I enjoy hiking mountains and wild swimming with my partner and my dog.

This project is funded by the NIHR Public Health Research programme (NIHR131396). The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.