Utah lawmakers look at phone bans in schools and youth social media restrictions

SALT LAKE CITY — Members of the Utah State Legislature are contemplating legislation that would ban the use of cell phones in classrooms and potentially limit their access to social media platforms.

The bills are being drafted in response to publicized research about the impacts of social media and increased screen time on children’s mental health, an issue that Governor Spencer Cox has become increasingly vocal about.

Problems associated with cell phones in classrooms prompted one Salt Lake City middle school to impose a ban. Clayton Middle School Principal Dallin Miller said they were constantly responding to instances of cyber-bullying, fake social media accounts representing students or teachers, surreptitious recordings being made, and it was all having an impact on students.

“They couldn’t focus on classwork because they were nervous about what was going to be posted about them during class,” Miller said in an interview with FOX 13 News.

Last year, Miller said, school administrators started meeting with teachers and parents to discuss the idea and found overwhelming support for it. Clayton Middle School doesn’t completely ban phones, but prohibits them from being out in classrooms and in the hallways.

“It’s made a huge difference in behavior,” Miller said, adding that student disciplinary cases have dropped.

It’s even spilled out beyond the school grounds.

“It’s helped with arguments at home over screen time, the parents are thanking us,” he said. “It’s been great.”

Miller said he encouraged other schools to consider similar cell phone use restrictions to limit classroom distractions when students should be learning.

The phone “ban” is something Rep.-elect Trevor Lee, R-Layton, intends to introduce statewide when he takes office in January at the start of the 2023 Utah State Legislature. He told FOX 13 News he is running a bill to ban cell phones in classrooms in all K-12 schools across the state.

“When kids get to class, they have to put their phone in a cubby and through the duration of the classroom they’re not allowed to have the phone out at all,” Rep.-elect Lee said. “They’re not allowed to go to it, touch it, see it. It’s turned off inside the cubby or on silent mode.”

The phone is still there for emergencies, he said, but pointed out that generations of school children were able to reach their parents through the front office before cell phones were ever introduced.

“It’s about making sure they are going to have a better opportunity to learn in school without these distractions,” Rep.-elect Lee said of students.

With some studies showing teens spend upwards of six or seven hours a day on phones, Rep.-elect Lee said his pending legislation was about creating a better learning environment in schools.

“If a kid can’t go a class without looking at their phone? That’s an even bigger problem that hopefully we can start to say ‘Hey, let’s create clothes that you’re not on your phone all day every hour of the day, let’s have some breaks and the break is when you’re learning,'” he said.

Beyond the phone ban, lawmakers are also looking at whether limits should be placed on youth access to social media. Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, has opened a bill on the subject. But he told FOX 13 News in an interview that details of the legislation are still being deliberated.

“When we talk about minors using social media, are there more restrictions that we need to have compared to an adult? That could range anywhere from looking at ways to restrict a minor’s ability to use it at all versus giving parents more tools to opt- in,” he said.

Rep. Teuscher said he was having discussions with social media companies about the pending legislation. Social media companies largely prohibit anyone under age 13 from signing up on their platforms (though critics say that can be worked around) and bans have faced criticism as censorship.

“It’s a very tricky area because minors have First Amendment rights, as well as adults,” Rep. Teuscher said. “So we have to make sure we’re doing something that’s going to stand up in the courts and solve the problem we see.”

Utah is not alone, with lawmakers in other states threatening similar bans on social media use. Govt. Cox, who has advocated for limiting phone and social media use, told FOX 13 News on Tuesday that he was in discussions with lawmakers about the potential bills that might emerge in the upcoming legislative session.