Why Do They Need Them?

Jennifer Graham
4 min readJun 6, 2023


Educators Wrestle with the Phone Problem

Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

I read a story recently about cell phones in schools. Educators hate them. Administrators hate them. Parents say the kids need them, even as they are a significant variable related to mental health issues. The kids are addicted to them. The kids need them in case of an emergency. They are distracting and contribute to a lack of focus on learning. It seems we are at a crossroads in the Great Cell Phone Debate.

Many of the comments under the article were from Gen X-ers and older Millennials who reinforced that they somehow made it all the way through school without a phone. A quick call to the school office could take care of any need. They simply weren’t necessary.

This viewpoint is overlooking a few major issues. First, cell phones were simply not part of life when many X-ers and Millennials were in school. It’s not as if everyone had one, and they just put them away once the bell rang. They were non-existent except in the most “Zach Morris”-type scenarios. Second, it doesn’t address the very large elephant in the room: school shootings and violence.

Recently, I was out for a walk, and I passed by the school my children attend. Imagine my shock when I counted several police cars, a firetruck, and an ambulance sitting outside. Cops in riot gear were standing at the entrance to the school. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare come to life, and I had no idea what to do. Should I run toward the school? Should I wait? What is the protocol here? As a middle schooler, my youngest is not allowed to have a cell phone in class, so I could not text or call to see if everything was under control. My heart started to race as I texted my high schooler; the older kids have the privilege of having their cell phones in class, so I knew he could answer me. “We are in a shelter-in-place; I don’t know why. They won’t let us leave”. I tried not to panic. If he could text, it meant he was probably okay. But what was happening?

It turns out, there had been a “credible threat” of violence against the school, and they had kept the kids in their classes until they could assess the situation. Without that text, I would have had no real idea of what was happening. Other parents said they tried to call the office, but no one was answering because of the shelter-in-place order. In earlier times, parents could call the school for routine issues, but what happens when they can’t answer?

As a social scientist, I know that cell phones can be detrimental; their addictive qualities are strong. I imagine they are a hindrance in a classroom. They are distracting, and they likely contribute to a lack of focus. The internet and all of its tentacles connect to mental health struggles. According to many studies, our kids are not doing well, and cell phones are part of that story.

As a parent, I felt immense relief when the three iPhone bubbles popped up after I texted my son. I kept imagining a scenario where I didn’t get to say goodbye, and I almost worked myself into hysteria. I kept thinking about my youngest not being able to contact me; what if she was scared? What if she was in danger? This is a reality that these kids live with that we didn’t.

Columbine happened when I was a freshman in college; until that event, it simply didn’t occur to me that anyone would walk into a school and start shooting people. I didn’t immediately think about the exits when I walked into my classroom. I wasn’t subjected to shooter drills. I wasn’t taught to “run, hide, fight”. I simply went to school, and if my mom needed me, she called the office. Why would I have needed to contact her? I was safe, and she was working.

Gen-Z kids don’t feel that way. They don’t feel safe. They know they need to be prepared. Many of them have never lived in a world without “run, hide, fight”. They have already scoped out the exits and made a plan. One part of that plan is to contact someone they love. As heartbreaking as that is, it is simply a reality for this generation of kids.

So, the crossroad continues to loom large in our minds. Yes, the cell phones are a problem. They are distracting, and we know kids are addicted to them. Teachers and administrators hate them. But how do we get rid of them now? They are ubiquitous and dominate almost every part of our society. There is almost nowhere we can go where cell phones are not present. How could we think schools would be different? Add in the layer of fear and trepidation that kids and their parents face, and it’s a bell that feels impossible to unring. Like so many things with humans, there is not a simple solution.