I’ve sung this cautionary tune before. Many times. But I can’t stop singing. It’s like I’m some modern day Cassandra, continually bemoaning the scourge of the smartphone, only to be ignored.

“Do you kids spend any time during the day with your phones more than an arm’s length away?” I ask the seniors in my Media Literacy class.

“Um, I guess not,” comes the reply. “But what’s the big deal? I get more done if I have it with me all the time.”

“Okay — my bad,” responds the crusty old English teacher.

But then I hear that cautionary tune again . . .

Dr. Frances Jensen, chair of the department of Neurology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, recommends that teenagers should, at the very least, separate from their cellphones when they go to bed.

“The artificial light can affect your brain,” explained Dr. Jensen. “It decreases some chemicals in your brain that help promote sleep, such as melatonin. So we know artificial light is not good for the brain. There have been studies that show that reading books with a regular warm light doesn’t disrupt sleep to the extent that using a Kindle does.”

Separating from the cellphone, however, is not easy for teenagers.

“Addiction is more efficient in the adolescent brain,” said Dr. Jensen. “That is an important fact for an adolescent to know about themselves — that they can get addicted faster.”

So can kids get addicted to their smartphones?

My own observations in school — watching kids text in the halls or simply clutching their phones, death-grip style — says “yes.” And I’m not the only one.

“In a career that spans 38 years, I have not seen any single diversion that so distracts students from reading, writing, thinking and working,” wrote Montana high school English teacher

“Needing a phone in hand or sitting on the desk in front of them reminds me of Linus from the Peanuts comics, who carries a security blanket,” added Gardiner. “Cellphones have become the modern security blanket. It is not just during school, at lunch, or after school. Students are using their cellphones 24/7. They sleep with them by their beds and text each other throughout the night.”

Author, filmmaker, and educator Douglas Rushkoff blames “present shock.”

“Our society has re-oriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always-on,” writes Rushkoff in his book Present Shock. “It’s not a mere speeding up, however much our lifestyles and technologies have accelerated the rate at which we attempt to do things. It’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now — and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.”

The late author, professor, and media visionary Neil Postman would characterize the current ubiquity of smartphones as a typical human response to a seemingly indispensable new technology.

“Technology tends to become mythic,” explained Postman in 1998. “That is, [it is] perceived as part of the natural order of things, and therefore tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.”

“What I am saying is that our enthusiasm for technology can turn into a form of idolatry and our belief in its beneficence can be a false absolute,” Postman said. “The best way to view technology is as a strange intruder, to remember that technology is not part of God’s plan but a product of human creativity and hubris, and that its capacity for good or evil rests entirely on human awareness of what it does for us and to us.”

In other words, society — especially Generation Y — has fully embraced the smartphone ethos, no questions asked. Indeed, my students find no irony in the fact that as we discuss the empirically proven shortcomings of multi-tasking, they mindlessly nod in agreement as their fingers feverishly type the next text message.

I was struck recently by a particular quote in Douglas Rushkoff’s 2010 documentary Digital Nation. Responding to the popularity of digital education in schools, Todd Oppenheimer, author of The Flickering Mind, said this:

“You see schools where they say, ‘Look, kids are different. They come in today different, we have to play with them; otherwise, we’ll lose them. We have to meet them on their own terms.’ It’s complete hogwash. We’ve got to slow down and stop, and schools are one of the few institutions we have in our society where you can have a sustained conversation about something without being bombarded and distracted by all these machines. We have to protect that.”

Oppenheimer nailed it. Smartphones offer multiple advantages in today’s world, but is telling students to disconnect from their phones during the school day really asking too much?

Unfortunately, Oppenheimer’s comment came six years ago, before smartphones usurped our daily lives. I fear the genie’s already out of the bottle.

Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.

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