© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'A distraction:' B-N students, parents, educators weigh in on phones in schools

Bloomington High School students who spoke to WGLT about social media in schools pose for a photo in front of a BHS photo board up from spirit week.
Melissa Ellin
Bloomington High School students, from left, Corvin Rivera, Elliott Tolentino and Kamorah Carter are all in agreement that there needs to be more education for youth about social media.

State lawmakers seemingly have opinions about everything — from what you can eat to what you can read — but they don't seem to have taken sides on social media.

Illinois joined a federal lawsuit against Meta late last year claiming Facebook contributed to the youth mental health crisis, but it hasn't taken the steps other states have to address ongoing concerns in schools.

Florida and Indiana have both banned phones in schools, and Ohio recently issued that all schools must develop phone policies. Additional states are considering similar laws, but not Illinois.

Instead, educators statewide are left to make their own rules and regulations surrounding phone usage. In Bloomington-Normal, those policies vary widely.

Leslie Blockman, the social and emotional learning coordinator at District 87, said there’s currently a lack of education in the community surrounding cell phones.

“Some parents are doing it, some are not,” she explained. “Some schools are doing more than others, and some are like us where they want to do things but are unsure what the right thing is, or when and how.”

Bloomington Junior High School

Messina Lambert, the new principal of Bloomington Junior High School.
District 87
Messina Lambert, principal of Bloomington Junior High School.

At Bloomington Junior High School (BJHS), Principal Messina Lambert said her staff were “fed up with phones and the usage and the fallout of that.” She called it "the hill (her) staff wanted to die on this year."

“They’re such a distraction,” she explained. “And it’s not the apps that are educational that are causing issues. It’s the communication with peers, it’s bullying, it’s things that are harmful to kids.”

So, as one of her first acts in her new role, Lambert banned cell phones for students. Under new guidelines, whenever a student had a phone out without permission, it was to be confiscated.

The school year wraps up this week, and Lambert said the policy made a noticeable difference. Misuse of phones — the code for phone-related infractions — is no longer the top disciplinary issue.

“Social media issues throughout the day are not happening,” Lambert said. “They're not texting each other to arrange to meet up in bathrooms or anything like that. They know that if their phone is seen, it is going to be confiscated. And so that has been successful.”

High School

Once students reach high school, there are fewer restrictions.

At both District 87 and Unit 5, teachers create their phone policies.

Bloomington High School (BHS) teacher Rich Watson told his students if they gave him a full 46 minutes of class time uninterrupted by phones, he would allow them to be on their phones for the last 4 minutes of class. For those who agreed to the terms, he’d also allow late work and resubmissions.

“Because I’m not going to guess why it wasn’t done,” he said. “I know life happens, but if you can’t give me the 46 when we’re here, then you haven’t earned that opportunity.”

Students could opt out of the agreement, with a guardian’s sign-off, but for the spring semester — his second semester with the policy in place — Watson said not a single student opted out. As a result, he said student work has improved, as has their attention.

“A big thing that’s gotten better is the actual classroom discussion, because everyone in the room now is forced to be — to some level — engaged,” he said, adding that even the quieter students have shown attention to detail by citing student discussion in submissions.

Unit 5 Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Kristal Shelvin said a teacher at one of the high schools used a conversation around cellphones to discuss the topic of fair process.

“You have engagement of everyone in the conversation so that everyone’s… points of view is shared, but then ultimately, there’s a decision made by the person who has authority to make that decision," she said.

Shelvin said this was “a great way for that particular classroom to decide what phone use would look like.”


Sisters Pranika and Prajna Kurella talked to WGLT about their phone usage and social media time. They're pictured in a WGLT studio.
Melissa Ellin
Sisters Pranika, left, and Prajna Kurella both say they would likely be different people if they had never used social media.

As educators are trying to figure all of this out, the students are feeling the effects.

Students at Normal Community High School (NCHS) and BHS said they recognize the harm phones can cause. Prajna Kurella, who is graduating from NCHS, said she thinks she’d be a much different person without social media access at a young age.

“My attention span would have been way better,” she said. “I would have been prioritizing sleep instead of sitting in bed, I would have also gotten my work done on time (so) that I have more time for other things.”

Her sister, rising junior Pranika Kurella, said she thinks her room would probably look different without social media, and so would her personality.

“Everything that you collect and add on to your personality you gathered from social media, because it’s either the new trending thing or it’s what’s cool now,” she said. “You kind of just base your whole personality off of that and then you just lose your uniqueness.”

At the same time, the Kurella sisters and BHS students said social media is near-essential — to their schoolwork. It’s how they disseminate information for clubs and how they get information from the school about sports and even snow days.

Kamorah Carter, who is graduating from BHS, said getting updates this way makes sense.

“Students don’t check their emails nearly as often as they check social media,” she said.

However, Elliott Tolentino said it feels “hypocritical” when coming from educators who are so against social media usage. He pointed out that some BHS teachers use social media to share class updates.

“These same teachers will go through the entire class yelling at students to get off their phone, that social media is destroying their young lives, but then they provide social media pages for our main source of news and information for our school and for our assignments,” he said.

Tolentino said he’s not sure it’s bad to operate this way, but there needs to be more education and conversation about social media if teachers are going to be using it.

Rising junior Corvin Rivera agreed. He said there needs to be education around how to identify cyberbullying and fake news.

“This is something that is going to be a part of these people's lives, wherever,” he explained. “Social media isn't going to go away once you get out of high school. This is going to be something that goes into your adult life.”


Carter said it’s hard to know where to turn to for help managing social media.

“I hate to be like that stereotypical movie teenager who says, like, my parents don't understand, but like, they kind of don't understand,” she explained. “My parents were born in the 70s. They had like, flip phones.”

Headshot of Leslie Blockman
Courtesy of Leslie Blockman
Leslie Blockman, the social and emotional learning coordinator at District 87.

Blockman with District 87 does what she can in the schools to educate about phones to students, through the 7 Mindsets curriculum and to guardians, through parent nights, but there are additional barriers to more dedicated lessons.

“If money wasn’t an issue and time wasn’t an issue, we would love to see District 87 students have education around social media use as early as third grade,” she said.

However, Blockman added that doesn’t mean the schools and parents should do nothing.

“It's an area of growth for everybody, but definitely a necessary one,” she said.

District 87 parent Lana Branch said she does all she can to learn about social media so she can keep her kids safe. Neither of her kids has phones, including her oldest, who is 12, and desperately wants one.

Branch said keeping her kids away from phones helps keep them away from social media, which she worries about having to moderate when the day comes.

“That’s going to be a full-time job,” she said, adding that it’s costly for apps that help with parental controls and they’re not all easy to use.

“I'm willing to put in whatever time it takes to make sure my sons are safe, but more parents have to be involved,” she said.

Branch characterized the turnout for the District 87 parent night on social media she went to as bleak.

Carter at BHS said the same can be said for student interest in the issue. She, Corvin and Tolentino are all members of the Promise Council and are interested in the matter, but the same can’t be said for other students.

“I do appreciate the amount of student groups that are emerging to try and combat different issues like this,” she said. “However, I do feel like students don't take each other seriously enough to actually get involved with what they see is wrong. It's kind of like, ‘Oh, you're soft. Oh, you're a snowflake.’”

She added that students will need to be at the helm if any change is to happen around social media because parents, teachers and administrators “don’t have the same experiences.”

Meanwhile, Prajna Kurella said much of the current burden for phone usage in general falls on the students themselves. She urged her peers to self-regulate.

“You need to create your own limitations and self-discipline,” she explained. “I'm not saying that social media inherently is bad. It's great for a lot of things like clubs and communication, but also personally, you need to learn how to balance your enjoyment on your digital device, and prioritize yourself.”

Melissa Ellin is a reporter at WGLT and a Report for America corps member, focused on mental health coverage.