Unlikely issue of cellphones in schools forges bipartisan bonds in Congress


Congress may have found at least one clear signal out of its partisan dead zone: cellphones. In a heated election year, in which a narrowly divided Congress is largely stalemated on most legislation and disrupted by heated rhetoric, fears about the impact of cellphones and social media on children have united political rivals.

In rapid succession over the past few months, bipartisan groups of members of Congress have proposed legislation or amendments to curb, shift or study the impact of phones and social media on kids — especially in classrooms.

Teachers dislike cellphones the way the devil hates holy water,” Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, told CBS News. Cotton, who has endorsed Donald Trump’s 2024 run for the White House and blasted the criminal prosecutions of Trump as politically motivated, has nonetheless found a Democrat with whom to partner to address the impact of phones in schools: Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, the Democratic Party’s 2016 nominee for vice president.

Kaine acknowledges the two make “an interesting pair.”  But he told CBS News the untraditional coalition helps generate headlines, credibility and traction for their efforts.

Cotton and Kaine secured approval last month by the Senate Health, Education and Labor committee to launch an Education Department study of school district cellphone policies. The study would review the impacts of smartphone use during class time on academic achievement and youth mental health. It would also examine the impacts of policies schools have chosen to implement to restrict student cellphone use.

“This issue is troubling to me, particularly the impact of (phones) on mental health issues,” Kaine said. I hear it all the time as I travel around to schools.

“I’ve not heard from a single teacher that wants kids to have their own cell phones in the classroom,” Cotton said. “We can have a gold standard-style study from the Education Department that local schools and state legislatures can use to make decisions.”

Debate over the Cotton-Kaine proposal at a Dec. 12 hearing of the Senate Health Committee lasted just minutes before the plan was overwhelmingly approved.

Cotton and Kaine are also pushing for a $5 million pilot project to provide some schools with secure containers where students can store their phones during school hours to reduce the use of phones and the distractions they cause during instruction.  

It’s not big money. But I think the design of our bill was to give a nudge to a trend that we already see taking off,” Kaine said. “By us doing it in a bipartisan way, we can give these (school efforts) a nudge forward.”

Some school systems have already experimented with phone-free policies, which could give federal officials examples to study.

Lynne Smith, a longtime health teacher at Nathanael Greene Middle School in Providence, Rhode Island, told CBS News her school’s new cellphone-free classroom policy has led to dramatic improvements. Smith said, “Our kids are focusing. Less distractions, less confrontations, their mental has improved.”

Online safety

Other proposals focused on the impact of social media on kids have also sparked bipartisan alliances. Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, and Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee have teamed up to sponsor and champion legislation to bolster online safety for kids. Their bill stiffens rules for social media companies, requiring tighter privacy protections for young users and independent audits to study the risks of social media platforms to minors.

The two have undertaken a busy tour of media interviews to bolster support for their proposal. Ahead of a Wednesday hearing on big tech‘s impact on child safety, Blumenthal and Blackburn issued a joint statement that said, “We are continuing to work with various stakeholders and colleagues on the bill to ensure we have strong legislation that will swiftly become law.

TikTok

A growing number of efforts and proposals to regulate or limit social media giant TikTok have also circulated through Congress. And they’ve blurred traditional party lines.

Washington GOP Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, made headlines in March 2023 when she called for a ban on TikTok.

“TikTok collects nearly every data point imaginable, from people’s location, to what they type and copy, who they talk to, biometric data, and more,” she said at a committee hearing.

The company’s surging popularity with teenagers and its connection to the Chinese government has elicited proposals, legislation and concerns across the political spectrum.

New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat who has helped lead the House’s bipartisan Problem Solvers caucus, proposed an amendment to legislation last month to limit TikTok’s influence on college students. The amendment, which failed to pass the House Rules Committee, would have prohibited colleges and universities from marketing on TikTok.

The spate of legislation comes amid a growing wave of concerns from congressional constituents.

Gottheimer told CBS News, “I hear about Tik Tok all the time, and about making sure parents have the tools to be able to see what their children are doing on social media.”

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