It has taken a while for most thoughtful educators to finally arrive at the conclusion that phones need to be banned in the classroom—no middle ground, no nuance, no appeasement. Classrooms would be transformed overnight and our children might just rediscover what they can achieve if they are not perpetually distracted.
Last week, I was a guest on The Charlie Kirk Show. At one point in the interview, I casually described one of the seismic changes to classroom life since the birth of the cell phone era. I explained when students are given a few minutes of free time at the end of the class period, the classroom doesn’t erupt into juvenile chatter, nervous movement, or youthful gossip aplenty. Instead, it is transformed into a silent void.
No, when the phones come out silence is suddenly ascendent in the classroom. However the same goes for birthday parties, dates, and family dinner outings.
In a 45-minute interview, this observation seemed to really strike a chord. Many people contacted me afterward to express their surprise about my remarks. And yet, for those who teach, nothing could be less shocking. This response reinforced the vast chasm between what teachers observe and what the broader public seems to understand about what’s happening inside their schools.
But this fall there is good news.
At last! As educators and students begin returning from summer vacation, more and more teachers and schools have arrived at the conclusion that cell phones in the hands of teenagers (and pre-teens) is nothing less than a metastasizing generational cancer.
Anecdotally, in my own orbit, teachers are fed up. They are tired of students playing video games and watching TikTok videos in the middle of class. They are sick of incessant cheating. They are sick of students who feign engagement but still have earbuds playing music throughout the entire class period. They are exhausted from having to repeat themselves multiple times because attention spans have been hijacked.
In the central valley of California where I live, Bullard High School in Fresno has just instituted a policy that requires students to lock up their devices in a ‘Yondr pouch‘ (a magnetically sealed pouch) during the school day. In Michigan, there is currently a bill that would ban phones on buses and inside classrooms.
Cell phones have rewired brains and rearranged the entire social universe of young Americans. Young people often struggle to make eye contact. They are perpetually distracted. Homework that should take 30 minutes now takes hours. Many would rather text than talk. They don’t go to movies and sporting events like they used to. They don’t want to come out of their rooms or talk to their friends and families. An entire book could be written about the tunneling effect social media has on ambition itself — how young people now often crave the shallow sheen of celebrity more than the time-honored quest for achievement itself. Why build a bridge when you can be an Instagram influencer instead?
In short, much of the human interaction that enriches life and supplies it with the drama of existence is woefully absent for this generation of young Americans.
Of course, schools cannot act as correctives. Only parents can confront the off-campus digital consumption of casual vulgarity, the emotional damage spurred by cyberbullying, and the harmful effects of sexting or exposure to pornography.
But what schools can do is craft policies that help to offset the problems associated with pixelated addiction and truncated attention spans. Schools can create a space — yes, a safe space conservatives can actually get behind — where constant pings, buzzes, and notifications are pacified, if only for a few hours.
Adults often do not understand or appreciate the parade of anxiety experienced by children who live most of their lives online. As Emily Weinstein and Carrie James brilliantly explain in their new book “Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (and Adults Are Missing),” many of these stressors are a consequence of teenagers having to “fight to regulate digital habits amid powerful design pulls and developmental sensitivities.” Some of these include:
When they care about a friend but also want to disconnect.
When they care about a civic issue but recognize the perils of posting and of staying silent.
When they feel trapped in unwanted filter bubbles that determine what they see.
When they are told to take care of their digital footprints, but they can’t prevent peers from posting things they would never want online.
When they fret about privacy risks but face a reality where control of the precursors to those risks and outcomes are out of their hands.
Not that long ago, teachers like myself concluded that banning cell phones from class was a lost cause, that it was far wiser to utilize phones as a complementary tool of class work and to meet the students on their own pedagogical turf. That Faustian bargain turned out to be fatally flawed.
I was wrong.
Anyone who has taught in an American classroom the past two decades knows the seminal book “Teach Like a Champion” by Doug Lemov. Recently, Lemov came to the same conclusion about cell phones in an essay entitled, “Take Away Their Cellphones,” in which he eloquently observes:
It’s magical thinking to propose that an epidemic that has doubled rates of mental health issues and changed every aspect of social interaction among millions of people is going to go away when a teacher says, “Guys, always use good judgment with your phones.” We’re not really wrestling with the problem if our response assumes that the average teacher, via a few pithy lessons, can battle a device that has addicted a generation into submission. Restriction is a far better strategy.
Banning phones will undoubtedly boost academic achievement. It will lead to a renaissance of school spirit. The conversations between students will be richer, the engagement more authentic, and the learning more intensive. Teachers will not feel they are constantly competing with the social media universe for their students’ attention. As teacher Daniel Buck has observed about schools with strict phone policies, “They speak freely, making eye contact at lunch. They play more games at recess. A few even crack a book when there’s nothing else to do. It creates community again.”
Let the adults set the expectations. We might be surprised how quickly our children rise to the challenge.
Jeremy S. Adams is the author of the recently-released paperback version of the best-selling book Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation. He has taught American civics for 25 years in Bakersfield, California and was the 2014 California Teacher of the Year (DAR). You can follow him on Twitter @JeremyAdams6.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Daily Wire.