A survey by Common Sense Census reveals that as of 2021, 43% of 8-to-12-year-olds own a smartphone, as do 88% of teens 13 to 18. The analysis also informs us that:
- the average teen spends a mind-boggling 8 hours and 39 minutes each day using electronic media.
- half of teenagers feel addicted to their phones.
- 78% check them hourly or more.
- Of those who have cellphones, 97% of teens report using them during the school day, mostly for nonacademic purposes.
This is anything but a new problem, however. The nation’s teachers have been competing with smartphones for years. A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that 90% of U.S. schools had some sort of smartphone ban. Of the teens surveyed,
- 62% said they could have their phones in school but not in class.
- 24% were not allowed to have phones on school grounds.
- Of those who attended a school with a total ban, 65% brought their phones to school anyway.
- While in class, 64% of teens said they had texted, and 25% had made or received a call.
The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in almost 80 countries every three years, tests 15-year-olds in math, reading, and science. The scores have been sinking over the years for a variety of reasons. Of late, COVID was a big factor. However, PISA has found a more ominous reason for the decline in scores: student smartphone usage.
PISA finds that students who spend less than one hour of “leisure” time on digital devices a day at school scored about 50 points higher in math than students whose eyes are glued to their screens more than five hours a day. In a comprehensive piece in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson notes that the gap held even after adjusting for socioeconomic factors. He also discloses, “For comparison, a 50-point decline in math scores is about four times larger than America’s pandemic-era learning loss in that subject.”
Cellphone screens also create a general distraction, even for students who aren’t always looking at them. Andreas Schleicher, the director of the PISA survey, maintains that students who reported feeling distracted by their classmates’ digital habits scored lower in math. Additionally, 45% of students said that they felt “nervous” or “anxious” when they didn’t have their digital devices near them.
In sum, students who spend more time involved with their phones do worse in school, distract other students, and feel worse about their lives.
Furthermore, smartphone usage prevents socialization among students during the school day. Addictive relationships are also associated with mobile devices, as well as mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and disrupted sleep. As Great Schools explains, “Neuroscience tells us that tweens’ and teens’ developing brains make them especially vulnerable to both addiction and mental health crises.”
Play and exercise are also affected by the use of electronics. A Danish study published in 2021 revealed that a four-week ban on phones during recess significantly increased both the frequency and intensity of physical activity of children aged 10–14.
Also, in a 2016 study of nearly 25,000 U.S. teenagers, about 20% used screened devices (smartphones, tablets, or video games) more than five hours per day. That group was 43% more likely to be obese than participants who experienced less screen time.
What can schools do?
In a comprehensive piece written in June 2023, American social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt makes a very strong case for phone-free schools. He writes that it’s helpful to think of phone restrictions on a scale from 1 to 5:
Level 1: Students can take their phones out during class, but only to use them for class purposes.
Level 2: Students can hold onto their phones but are not supposed to take them out of their pockets or backpacks at all during class time.
Level 3: Phone caddies in classrooms: Students put their phones into a wall pocket or storage.
Haidt suggests that the above are tepid at best and useless at worst, and then gets into more potent measures.
Level 4: Lockable pouches (such as those made by Yondr). Students are required to put their phone into their own personal pouch when they arrive at school, which is then locked with a magnetic pin (like the anti-theft tags used in clothing stores). Students keep the pouch with them but cannot unlock it until the end of the school day, when they are given access to a magnetic unlocking device.
Level 5: Phone lockers. Students lock their phones into a secure unit with many small compartments when they arrive at school. They keep their key and get access to the phone lockers again only when they leave school.
What can parents do?
Parents have the most important role to play. Some moms and dads justify providing their kids with a cellphone because they feel the need to be in immediate touch with them. This reason rings thin, however. Just as they have done since time immemorial, parents can call the school’s main office if they need to get a message relayed to their child.
At home, parents should not let their child have a smartphone till high school, and then curtail the time they spend on it. It’s no secret that children can access websites that are highly inappropriate – porn, excessive gore, etc. Why let them have unsupervised access to these sites?
Worth noting is that at this time, 33 states are suing Meta, alleging the tech giant has deliberately engineered its social media platforms, Instagram and Facebook, to be addictive to children and teens.
Let children know you will be conducting surprise periodic checks to make sure they are not visiting sites they should be shunning. If a parent suspects deleted history, they should let their kid be phoneless or a spell. Parents should also encourage their child’s friends’ parents to restrict usage.
Another alternative would be to give your child a “dumb phone,” which only allows texting and phone calls. These phones have no easy access to the internet, no social media, and a lower risk of inappropriate content.
As a public school teacher from the 1970s to the aughts, I was involved with cellphone use in class only toward the end of my career. It wasn’t a big problem with my students. I simply told them that they couldn’t use them in class. And for the most part – to the best of my knowledge – they didn’t.
But one girl didn’t put her device away after a warning, so I took it from her and told her she’d get it back after class. At that point she became enraged and got a hold of my hair and was pulling it mercilessly. Trying to stay calm, I told her to let go. She didn’t. So, with my head on the way to the floor, I was forced to end the skirmish with an elbow uppercut to her chin.
In retrospect, I realize that what I did was akin to ripping a needle out of a junkie’s arm mid-fix.
Children’s use of smartphones needs to be controlled. Immediately.
Larry Sand, a retired 28-year classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.