Greensheets staff writer Mike Adams at McGeorge School of Law

By: Mike Adams

Kids these days with their newfangled smartphones! It’s stunting their brains!

It sounds like a clichéd complaint from an older generation, but that grouchy old curmudgeon might actually be right. Modern social science research is starting to uncover some very serious negative effects of excessive screen time. Depression and lowered school achievement are two of the known effects, let alone the issue of cyberbullying. When that grouchy curmudgeon was growing up bullies might dunk a kid’s head in a toilet. But at least the kid could go home at the end of the day to escape their tormenter. With smartphones and the 24/7 connection to all the various forms of social media that comes with them, bullying follows the victim wherever they go.

If we’re going to try to address these problems, we need to find a place where our intervention would be maximally effective. A nexus where all these problems occur, and where it is possible to provide children with a respite from smartphones—the school system. If the law allowed it, and if schools enforced it, some kind of smartphone ban at school might be really good for kids’ mental health.

That’s what AB 272 aims to do. It gives school districts, charter schools, and county offices of education the power to ban smartphones.

Wait, “Blocking kids from access to their property, and restricting their free speech?” you might ask. How fast can you say “constitutional challenge?” Most people are not aware of how much leeway schools have in regulating the speech and possessions of students. Yes, it turns out that a school can indeed prevent a student from using their favorite medium for speech without running afoul of the First Amendment. The school can even seize the device itself without running afoul of the Fourth Amendment. There are some outer limits that schools cannot cross, but my article sketches out those boundaries, so a school official can steer clear of them.

Now, the weird thing is that California law already allowed schools to ban “electronic signaling devices.” The archaic language indicates that was an old law, and few schools really noticed it or took advantage of that power. What’s worse, the old law was clunky—with gaps in coverage and unclear language—and had the potential to conflict with other education laws. It was written before charter schools were a hot topic and before accommodating students with disabilities was taken so seriously.

AB 272 brings the idea of a school ban on smartphones back into the spotlight, and it broadens the coverage by allowing nontraditional schools to use its provisions. This new law also carves out some important exceptions that would make such a ban work more smoothly with the rest of the education system. It reacts to the problems created by smartphones, while also trying not to overreact. My article suggests some ways for a school to tailor a smartphone ban so that it does the maximum amount of good for students’ mental health while doing a minimum amount of harm.

You can subscribe to the In Session podcast and listen to my broader conversation about AB 272 with Thomas Gerhart on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher Radio, Spotify, and everywhere else podcasts are listened to.

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