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Josh Brown, 6, plays his PlayStation Portable. A Santa Barbara School Board policy went into effect this week banning students from using personal electronic devices during school hours. (Mollie Helmuth / Noozhawk photo)

Parents have a lot to think about this time of year. Stylish back-to-school clothes? Check. Brand-new Jonas Brothers backpack with matching notebook? Check. Updated cell phone plan and shiny new iPod Nano? Really?

Elementary-age children are bringing gadgets to school at a rising rate, causing concern over the discipline, health and morals of the developing generation.

The Santa Barbara School Board‘s policy went into effect this week banning students from using personal electronic devices during school hours. The decision was made in May, and enforcement methods are still being discussed.

Susan Zink is a parent who also teaches a second-grade/third-grade combination class at Hollister Elementary School in Santa Barbara. Parents, she says, often justify giving children cell phones with needing to contact them after school. 

“Whatever happened to, ‘Meet me up front at the gate’?” Zink said, adding that strict rules are enforced at Hollister to keep cell phones from becoming a distraction.

“When we’re aware of it, the cell phone has to be on my desk and not in the backpack. In the upper grades, however, lots of them have cell phones that all come out of the backpacks at 3:01 (p.m.).”

Dr. Jay Fortman is a marriage and family therapist as well as a psychologist at El Camino Elementary School. He affirms that time involved using portable gadgets is affecting schoolwork.
“I am finding with ADHD that it sometimes affects the neurological system by not being able to relax (from the) aftereffects,” Fortman said.

Melody Robertson, whose youngest child is in high school, says cell phones are a “necessary evil, if you will.” 

“For safety reasons, I think kids should be allowed to have them, especially if they are walking home or coming back to an empty house,” Robertson said. “But you should not be allowed to use them during school, even texting.”

A rising challenge, says Kelly Taiji, who teaches sixth grade at La Patera Elementary School in Goleta, has been competing with the constant entertainment that students get from portable devices such as PlayStation Portables or MP3 players.

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Samantha Brown, 8, says she wishes she could take her iPod to school to “show it to my friends and let them listen to the songs.” (Mollie Helmuth / Noozhawk photo)

“It’s a lot more difficult to get them motivated in the classroom,” said Taiji, who has seen the rise of mindless entertainment leading to a decrease in exercise and focus. “I don’t know if it’s directly related, but there are a lot more kids with ADD. I also notice it obesity-wise.”

Dr. Victor Strasburger, chief of the Division of Adolescent Medicine at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, says there’s little scientific evidence linking portable gadgets with debilitating childhood disorders such as attention deficit disorder or obesity.

“There’s no research, only on the connection between obesity and TV,” Strasburger said. “I lecture around the country, so I can tell you firsthand what a pain in the butt cell phones are to speakers. I imagine that teachers feel very much the same way.”

Aside from physical health concerns, Taiji said the expensive portable devices have catered to theft and inappropriate sexual behavior among students on overnight trips.

“Two years ago, it was a problem on a fifth-grade overnight trip because they were sending dirty texts to each other,” she said. “PSPs have also been banned on overnights because of the same reason.”

Taiji said she sees gadget-dependence especially prevalent during the annual fifth- and sixth-grade trips, where some kids battle loneliness at night by listening to their MP3 players.

“We only allowed them to listen to it at night, and we check to make sure there isn’t inappropriate music,” she said.

Beth Brown has two children at Hollister Elementary School and says although they aren’t allowed cell phones, one has a PSP and the other has an iPod. Neither is allowed to take the device to school. 

Samantha Brown, 8, says she wishes she could take her iPod to school because she would like to “show it to my friends and let them listen to the songs.” Josh, 6, says that if he were given a cell phone, he would want to “call China all the time.”

“The biggest worry I had about it was actually (Samantha) damaging her ears with it,” Beth Brown said of her daughter. “Both of their devices have the capability of watching movies, and we loaded videos on them when we went to Jamaica. It really helped with the tedious plane trip.”

Barbara Keyani with the Santa Barbara School District says the main reason schools are cracking down on gadget-use this year is that it detracts from what school should be about.

“The point is that instruction is the most important thing,” Keyani said. “The disruption of having cell phones or other electronic devices keeps that from happening.”

Noozhawk intern Mollie Helmuth can be reached at