Gov. Cox wants Utah teachers to ban cellphones during class time

Cox sent letters to school districts and education leaders across the state, voicing his concerns about social media’s impact on youth mental health.

(Dmitry Kostyukov | The New York Times) Teenagers use their cellphones after school in Paris, Sept. 19, 2018.

In his latest move to shield Utah’s youth from the harmful effects of social media, Gov. Spencer Cox on Wednesday sent letters to Utah school districts, charter schools and state education leaders calling for teachers to remove cellphones during class time.

“We all know that cellphones are a distraction and when we put phones away we can actually focus and study,” Cox said in a statement. “Cellphone-free learning environments will help our teachers teach and our students learn.”

There are currently no statewide policies regulating cellphone use at school. That’s left up to schools and districts to decide, said Utah State Board of Education officials.

Some schools that have implemented no-phone policies have seen success. For instance, students at Centennial Jr. High School in Kaysville helped craft a policy this year that both incentivizes students to put their phones away during class and penalizes those who don’t.

Centennial students caught using their phones or other smart devices are issued a ticket and must surrender their device to the school’s main office. On a first offense, a student can retrieve the phone after class; on the second offense, after the school day is over; and on the third offense the student’s parent must pick it up.

But classes with a clean record get rewarded with ice cream parties and other prizes — a system that, school officials say, has helped students connect and focus.

Delta High School in Millard School District and Evergreen Junior High in Granite School District have also implemented similar policies and seen success, according to the governor’s office.

“Learning has improved, and our scores reflect that,” Evergreen Principal Ryan Shaw said in a statement, according to a news release from Cox’s office. “Bullying and fighting have decreased. The students connect with each other in a more meaningful way. We are grateful for the support we have from our community council — it’s been critical.”

Utah was the first state to enact laws limiting minors’ use of social media apps, driven by concerns about its impact on youth mental health. A group representing the social media companies filed a federal lawsuit last month to block the regulations, arguing that they are overbroad and violate the First Amendment by restricting free speech.

The state is also among dozens of others that are suing Meta — the owner of Facebook, Instagram and Threads — alleging the company has purposefully designed its products to create addictive behaviors in minors Utah is also suing TikTok in another complaint.

Separately, at least 20 Utah school districts have filed their own lawsuits against TikTok, Meta and several other social media companies, including Snap Inc., developer of Snapchat; and YouTube, owned by Google. They allege that emotional and mental health issues caused by social media have put a financial strain on schools, as they are forced to provide extra services to educate affected students

“We want to give our schools every opportunity to succeed,” Cox said in a statement, “and so I hope our local school districts and charter schools will join me in this effort to keep phones in backpacks or lockers during class time.”