Should schools ban smartphones?

Published : 13 Jun 2023 08:35 PM

Rare is the essay that can change lives. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has written one.

On Tuesday, Haidt published “Get Phones Out of Schools Now” for the Atlantic. If you haven’t made up your mind about the advisability of young people taking smartphones to school, Haidt’s careful, well-documented argument will likely move you into the “do not allow” camp.

Some parents in the US might even be persuaded to take a bigger step and simply treat kids’ access to smartphones like access to the car keys: When you’re old enough to drive, you’re old enough to have a smartphone.

Evidence has lately become clear that phones are addling young minds and that there is a causal link between their use and skyrocketing mental health issues among the young. Haidt succinctly summarizes his findings: “So the time is right for parents and educators to ask: Should we make the school day phone-free? Would that reduce rates of depression, anxiety, and self-harm? Would it improve educational outcomes? I believe that the answer to all of these questions is yes.”

One US study he cites found that students’ test scores dropped the closer they were to a phone, even if it wasn’t in use. The potential for distraction was itself distracting.

“All children deserve schools that will help them learn, cultivate deep friendships, and develop into mentally healthy young adults,” he concludes. “All children deserve phone-free schools.”

The solution is obvious but not inevitable. The trouble will be the bubble. The trouble is always the bubble.

In the US there are “blue bubbles” and “red bubbles” and bubbles for every point of view, cultural value or political inclination. They all function like the enormous, menacing bubble in the mostly forgotten 1967-1968 British television series “The Prisoner.”

Created by and starring Patrick McGoohan, the 17-episode show depicted a British spy whose resignation prompts his abduction to a strange, resort-like penal colony. But all you need to know is that the bubble, known as Rover, always won. Always. The bubble enforced the rules on the prisoners, smothering them into docility. The prisoners never escaped.

Today’s bubbles have a similar policing effect, reinforcing existing opinions and shuttering minds against new information and changes of direction. Much of the U.S. education elite is in a bubble of conformity to its own hierarchy of authority.

Unless that hierarchy is open to findings such as those Haidt describes, the dramatic course correction necessary in all schools - public and private, religious and secular, charter and neighborhood - will not happen.

False sense of security 

Officials within the education establishment must be willing not only to do something of critical importance to students but also to face down the unavoidable pushback. The pushback will come from students, of course, but also from parents who like the convenience and false sense of security afforded by equipping their children with phones.

If the ability to stay in touch with their kids during the day is essential, Haidt says, then parents - especially of younger children - should equip them with flip phones, a.k.a. dumb phones, the kind strictly for placing and receiving calls, not for scrolling through social media.

There would almost certainly also be quiet lobbying by phone manufacturers against school bans, for surely the bans would raise questions about the hidden harms that smartphones have inflicted on a generation of children.

If these phones are a danger to students’ health and well-being, as Haidt argues, and if the manufacturers and social media companies that grew because of them knew of the risk and did not act to stop or at least warn of it . . . well, the history of cigarette and opioid litigation might be instructive.

I hope the bubble denizens mentioned above can escape long enough to read this one essay. Then a start will have been made.

Closing schools during the pandemic was an enormous and costly mistake that the nation must not repeat, absent specific evidence that a virus is a terrible danger to children. But the evidence of how smartphones damage young minds and undermine education is already here. Get phones out of schools now.

Hugh Hewitt is a radio hostand professor at Chapman University School of Law.

Source: Washington Post