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Cell Phone Pouches Promise to Improve Focus at School. Kids Aren’t Convinced

8 minute read

When the students at Eastlake High School in Colorado Springs, Colo., returned to their school building in January 2021 following the COVID-19 lockdowns, principal Cassandra Berry noticed that they were glued to their phones even more than before. Students texted throughout classes, ignoring teachers. Fights broke out, sparked by nasty missives sent over DMs and posted on social media. 

“We had a couple of fights, and unfortunately, one of them was taped by a student in the classroom and posted on social media,” Berry says. “We wanted to make sure to nip that in the bud.” 

After mulling different solutions, Berry signed a contract this year with Yondr, an ed-tech company that sells locked pouches for cell phones. Berry learned about them when she went to a Dave Chappelle comedy show that required audience members to stow their phones during the performance. She liked the experience and thought it could be effective for her students as well. 

Eastlake High School now is one of thousands of schools across the world that have turned to Yondr in order to combat phone addiction and distraction. Founded in 2014, Yondr has rapidly expanded since the pandemic and now serves more than 1 million students in 21 countries. The company has had more than a tenfold increase in sales from government contracts since 2021, from $174,000 to $2.13 million, according to GovSpend, a data service. 

Some teachers swear by Yondr, saying it has dramatically transformed their classrooms to allow students to actually focus on learning. But many students have decried it as invasive and paternalistic, and some parents argue that phones are a safety tool, especially given the proliferation of school shootings. Some experts also worry that the money spent on Yondr could be better spent on other resources. 

“I would call into question if you’re putting it into schools that are quote-unquote under-resourced academically,” says Tanji Reed Marshall, CEO and principal consultant of Liaison Educational Partners. ‘“So you don't want to support my academics, but you want to put my money on buying a tool to keep me off my phone?’”

The debate over whether phones belong in schools has raged for more than a decade. A 2015 study found that test scores rose by as much as 6% after cell phone bans were enacted. Phone usage has only escalated since then: A Pew Research Center study last year found that a third of teens were on social media “almost constantly.” 

A majority of parents support limits on cell phone usage in schools, one study found, and many schools already have cell phone bans in place. But the same study found that parents are largely skeptical of taking phones away from kids outright. And many students have tried to resist these more restrictive measures. At least 80 petitions calling for schools to stop using Yondr have been created on Change.org. “They are inconvenient and a waste of money,” reads one petition started in January 2023, which has garnered over 600 signatures. 

Nevertheless, some U.S. school districts, including in Holyoke, Mass., and Akron, Ohio, have mandated it for middle and high school students, and legislative efforts may be coming as well: Both Republican and Democratic Senators have flagged tamping down cell phone use as a priority this congressional year. Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton told CBS News, "Teachers dislike cell phones the way the devil hates holy water."

A Yondr spokesperson addressed student concerns in an email, writing, “There will always be students who try to push boundaries, but in our experience, we see 90/95% compliance in the vast majority of our schools, practically overnight….Yondr is not a punishment, we know that when students are given the opportunity to experience a phone-free school environment, they feel the benefits and can then fully understand why it's a good idea to have regular breaks from their phones/social media.” The spokesperson added that the company’s reach in schools is expected to “grow significantly” for the next academic year. 

At the start of every day at Eastlake High School, students turn off their phones and put them in individual Yondr pouches. They keep their ensconced phones on them and then unlock them by tapping them on a magnetic device at the end of each day as they leave. After more than a month of Yondr usage, Berry says the experiment is helping students focus. “We had a young lady who half the time she's engaged and half the time she's not. After we started doing Yondr, one day she told the teacher, ‘Well, I guess I gotta do classwork, because I don’t have anything else to do,’” Berry says. 

Berry says the number of fights between students has decreased, because there are fewer impetuses to start them. “They don't have to worry about what someone's saying about them or what someone thinks about them, because they don’t see it throughout the day,” Berry says. “They're all working on their work.” 

Yondr typically costs $25 to $30 a student. Berry says that Eastlake High School used Title IV funds to pay about $2,400 for 80 pouches. She acknowledges that Eastlake’s small size—fewer than 100 kids—allowed them to keep the costs down.  

One public school teacher in New South Wales in Australia, who was contacted by TIME via Reddit direct message, has also been very happy with Yondr since their school district implemented it two years ago. “We know that a number of students don't use them correctly and still have their phones accessible, but they're rarely being brought out and used in class or during breaks, which was a significant problem before,” the teacher wrote. “I'm not paranoid about students filming or photographing me during class to then post on social media and rant about me. We've also noticed that our students are far more active and social during their breaks.” (The teacher, who teaches 12- to 18-year-olds, asked TIME not to use their name because they were not authorized to speak about school policies.)

But Yondr’s rollout has been far from perfect. Marshall consulted for a large public school in Massachusetts that tried to introduce it last fall. For a while, the effort was successful: “The administration found that the building didn't have as much high energy, because their weekend drama isn't coming to school with all the texting,” Marshall says. 

Within weeks, however, students began to fight back against the program, which they perceived as a control mechanism—especially because the other two schools that shared the same building did not require the pouches. “The students felt put upon. They didn't feel as though they were part of the process and felt this was targeted towards Black and brown kids in schools that are under-resourced,” she says. 

And once students started to rebel, they found ways to get to their phones in spite of the pouch.  “Students were very adept at adapting to this new environment,” Marshall says. “They found ways to keep phones and pretend they had Yondr. They found ways to break into the Yondr; they found ways to ignore it altogether.” Within 60 days, Marshall says the teachers at the school stopped enforcing the use of Yondr. 

Similarly, Regina Galinski, a New York City parent, says that her child’s school’s use of Yondr has been relatively ineffective. “It’s pretty useless, since kids have access to Chromebooks and just chat that way,” she wrote over Facebook Messenger. “It helps in the lower grades when kids follow rules, but as they get older, they are pointless. If you hit the pouch hard enough, it pops open.” 

“The pouch is very durable,” a Yondr spokesperson said, “and schools are provided with guidance and processes in which they can ensure students are compliant.” 

Improving schools via technology and other novel solutions has proved challenging. A February 2024 report examined a $1.4 billion Department of Education initiative to develop and test new ideas in the classroom and found that only a quarter of those innovations yielded any positive benefits for students and no negative harms.

Marshall says she’s not against Yondr but believes it needs to be rolled out in a conscientious way, and with the buy-in of everyone involved: students, parents, and teachers. “Yondr is neither good nor bad,” Marshall says. “It’s as good or bad as the systems and the conditions around which it is meant to operate.”

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