Home >Technology >Gadgets >Kids with smartwatches are the new classroom nuisance

Just when schools finally figured out how to deal with students’ cellphones, a new classroom distraction is emerging: smartwatches.

Parents have opted to send students to school with child-friendly wearables like Verizon’s GizmoWatch, and even Apple Watches, as a less-distracting alternative to cellphones. But educators say that students are using their watches to cut class or text friends—sometimes with cheating in mind—and still more are distracted by the notifications buzzing on their wrists.

Jeanne McVerry, a reading specialist and education-technology coach in Teaneck, N.J., said her district doesn’t specifically forbid smartwatches in its tech-use policy but she has taken a hard line on them. She asks students to put them in their backpacks during class. She learned students were using them to arrange bathroom meetups with friends to hang out during class time.

“Technology changes so rapidly and in ways we can’t anticipate that we don’t know how we’re going to police every new thing," Ms. McVerry said.

While the children’s smartwatch market is still relatively small, making up about 20% of overall smartwatch shipments, it’s a growing segment of personal tech for young people. According to Pew Research, 13% of teens own a smartwatch. Kids’ smartwatch unit sales grew 12% to about 12 million in the first half of this year compared with the prior-year period, according to SuJeong Lim, a senior analyst at Counterpoint Research. She said she expects the kids’ smartwatch market to grow by double digits annually.

Those figures represent watches designed specifically for kids—so they don’t include the Apple Watch. Apple recently made its smartwatches more child-friendly by not requiring kids to have an iPhone to pair them with. (Parents can set up the Apple Watch—and parental controls—through their own iPhone.)

Many educators learned with cellphones and texting that it is often parents, and not other students, who are the worst offenders—which led many districts to lock up phones during class rather than simply forbid students to use them.

“Every once in a while, I bump into the whole ‘But my mom needs to get in touch with me’ excuse," Ms. McVerry said. “Administrators can tell parents not to text their children, but let’s be real—there are certain personality types who want 24/7 access to their kids, school rules be damned."

While her district’s tech policy doesn’t name smartwatches, it states that students can only use privately owned technology devices at school with both parent and teacher approval, and that teachers can choose to prohibit their use.

Ms. McVerry said she worries about how constant parent-child communication is affecting kids’ development. “When parents are constantly sending that reminder text, they’re not giving their child the discomfort they need to advocate for themselves," she said.

Diana Johnson, a high-school math teacher in eastern Georgia, likewise found that the biggest problem with both smartwatches and cellphones is parents texting their kids. Her school doesn’t yet have a policy on smartwatches except during state standardized testing, when they aren’t allowed. Cellphones aren’t allowed to be used by students except at lunch.

“Every notification and text message distracts them from what they are doing. The students usually have them set on silent so that I don’t hear it, but it buzzes their wrist," Ms. Johnson said.

“The problem with the constant interruptions is that the students lose their train of thought," she added. “They will be texted something like ‘Don’t forget to let the dog out when you get home’ and then whatever they were working on is just gone right out of their mind and they have to start over."

Andrea Hawkins, of Saraland, Ala., admits she’s guilty of sending reminder texts to her 10th-grade son’s Apple Watch but tries to keep it to a minimum. “It makes it simple to communicate with him without violating the electronics policy, because the school doesn’t want cellphones out during class," she said.

Ms. Hawkins said she has had to text after learning that his cross-country practice was canceled, so he could catch the school bus home; if she hadn’t let him know, and he found out only after going to the coach’s room, he could have missed the bus.

“I may text him once a week, maybe twice a week if there’s been a schedule change," she said, adding that he keeps his watch on theater mode, so there’s no vibrating or ringing.

Apple has a new feature called Schooltime that allows Apple Watch wearers to block access to notifications and apps, including Messages, during school hours. Parents can set the hours using the Apple Watch app on their iPhone, if that’s what they used to set up their child’s watch, or they can do it from the control center of the child’s watch. Children can exit Schooltime if they need to make an emergency call or text, but the watch reverts to Schooltime once the call is over or the text has been sent. Parents can see if their kids are exiting Schooltime by checking the Apple Watch app on their iPhone.

Smartwatches—which can range in price from $100 for Verizon’s GizmoWatch2 to around $500 for a higher-end Apple Watch with cellular connectivity—also pose an equity issue, some administrators say.

All students at San Mateo High School in the San Francisco Bay Area get school-issued Chromebooks that have chat functions disabled. The school requires cellphones to be securely locked during the day in pouches made by a company called Yondr (which my colleague Joanna tested a few years ago). However, the school doesn’t yet have a policy governing smartwatches or other devices, such as laptops and tablets, brought from home.

“Children who can afford smartwatches and MacBooks have additional means to communicate," Adam Gelb, the school’s assistant principal, said, adding that the school is likely to develop a policy around outside devices soon. “If everyone just has a Chromebook, there’s an even playing field and no one sticks out."

Yondr recently developed an extra-large pouch that can hold both a cellphone and a smartwatch, or a cellphone with those pop-out grips.

So far the larger pouches make up between 5% and 10% of Yondr’s orders. “Smartwatches are definitely something schools are adapting to," said Yondr Chief Executive Officer Graham Dugoni. “We wanted to create an environment free of phone distractions, and smartwatches are clearly an extension of that."

—For more Family & Tech columns, advice and answers to your most pressing family-related technology questions, sign up for my weekly newsletter.


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