Why I’m Banning The Phone Ban

Note: this is the third post on our high school mission trip. The first two posts are here and here.

This is the last mission trip where I bar students from having their phones. The last.

I can’t speak for my co-leaders, but I’m done policing students on this. For a few reasons: the phone ban is difficult to enforce; phones–like it or not–are thoroughly intertwined with basic daily functions; it’s patronizing.

Enforcing a phone ban is a terrible waste of leadership time and energy on a mission trip. We asked every student before they got on the bus, “Do you have a phone?” Because they and their parents had been told in very clear terms that phones were NOT ALLOWED, every one of them answered, “No.”

Lies. We discovered at least a dozen phones during the trip. One student justified her phone’s presence by admitting that her mother had instructed her to call home every night, despite the ban. Who is she to obey? Mom or the youth leader?

A student sitting right next to me on the bus took his phone out of his pocket, and, when I called him on it (“Hey, you’re not supposed to have that.”), be blushed. I told him to hand it over.


Just no.

What could I do? Wrestle him for it?

“I’m very disappointed.”


After conscientious students who had observed the ban started justifiably complaining about those who had not, we did a sweep, promising not to apprehend the devices but threatening discipline if they were used to text or make calls–in other words, as phones. This is the part about phones’ enmeshment in our lives. Music players, video game systems, cameras: phones get used every day for so many  things unrelated d to communication, things that we otherwise allowed on the trip, that banning them creates a hardship.

Conscious of this, we leaders urged students to bring separate cameras and iPods and video games. All those things were allowed. Some students brought none of those things. Some brought three separate things. Some brought their phones.

The camera is the thorniest piece of this puzzle. Your phone camera is the one you use every day and most easily. It seems unnecessary for mission trip leaders to demand you bring one don’t normally use just because you can’t text with it.

Most importantly of all, the phone ban is patronizing. I had my phone. I used it to call home to my wife and daughter, and I was very uneasy with the distinction that practice asserted between the importance of my family and students’ families. If this was an adult mission trip, there would be no phone ban. It’s that simple. Implementing one for high school students treats them less like the adults we want them to become and more like children.

Negotiating the role of our phones is a terrific community-building opportunity on mission trips, indeed, in all of our youth ministry gatherings, because it gets at our expectations of attention and presence from one another. Inviting students to both articulate and enforce their own expectations of one another in this regard is a better practice, I’m convinced, than issuing a unilateral ban.

That’s why I’m banning the phone ban.

15 thoughts on “Why I’m Banning The Phone Ban

  1. My kids didn’t have smart phones in high school, so a phone ban wouldn’t be a big deal for us.
    It’s a tension. When kids (or adults) are attached to their phones, they don’t engage where they are. But phones are also how we mediate our experience in the world. Instagram, Twitter, FB, etc.
    I used to be annoyed by phones in worship. Now, (in addition to playing candy crush), I know people are also posting worship photos on fb, and so I don’t worry about it any more. It’s a brave new world.
    I will say that I would be really annoyed with the parent who told the child to break the rules and call. I would have a conversation with that parent and say, “rather than teach your child that the rules do not apply to them, it would have been more helpful for you to speak with me about the rule before the trip so we could have worked out a solution.”

    1. More than anything, the ban was too easy. Like the conversation you propose with that parent, engaging students in a conversation about their phones on the trip would have been difficult and time-consuming. We took the easy way out and paid for it.

    1. It has, but there we let the group establish and enforce their own standard. There’s disagreement about the standard, though, and enforcement of it is a huge diversion.

  2. “Be Here Now” is what I say to my youth who are using their phones at the wrong time. It usually works because they have written the code of conduct for the year. It is always difficult to come up with an across-the-board “rule” that will be “fair”. I am not sure those exist anymore. In a perfect world, we would have had the youth come up with reasonable rules. But that would be tough to coordinate. And we adults used our smart phones to send out the daily emails to update the parents on our progress. And I checked in occasionally with my dog sitter.

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