As a teacher of nearly 20 years, I gave up the notion of being able to control educational policy writ large a long time ago. Often telling my students, “If I were king of the world, things would be different,” I have been content to control what happened in the sanctuary of my classroom. However, recent societal trends snapped me out of my apathy and, rather than challenge policy makers, I want to appeal to parents.
So, to the moms and dads out there — please — do not buy your children smartphones.
• EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth in a series of essays from Manchester High School English and Social Studies teachers who participated in this summer’s Connecticut Writing Project-Storrs at the University of Connecticut, part of the National Writing Project’s College, Career, and Community Writers Program. The program’s goal is to learn how to better prepare students for the writing demands they will encounter beyond high school.
I am sure many of you, like me, have maligned a gaggle of adolescents for standing in a circle, fixated on their smartphones, and not interacting. Quite possibly, you have seen a couple sitting at a restaurant on a date, heads down, browsing social media. Or maybe this describes you. At any rate, smartphones have become the leading obstacle to getting my students to succeed.
Unfortunately, where smartphones are concerned, we are living in a state of anomie. The technology is moving too fast for us to develop social norms around their use. Five years ago, students in my school were not allowed to use any type of hand-held device. In fact, teachers were advised to take the device from the student and send it down to the main office. Some schools still use these policies. However, now my students are allowed to have and use whatever digital devices they want, and it creates distractibility at levels I have never seen in my career.
What you probably are asking yourself right now is, Why doesn’t he just take their smartphones away from them? Easier said than done. In the manner that drug addicts protect their stashes, students are not easily parted from their digital devices. I use that metaphor only partly in jest; research shows that smartphone use mimics chemical addiction in the brain. Policing smartphone behavior is becoming increasingly more difficult, which is why I am asking for your help. Not only because it enables me to do my job better, but because it will be better for your child.
But don’t take my word for it. Experts in the field of human-technology relations agree that smartphones are bad for our kids. In her important book, Alone Together, MIT professor Sherry Turkle explains that “mobile technology has made each of us ‘pauseable,’” meaning that our face-to-face conversations suffer, which means that our emotional intelligence suffers. This is even more devastating a loss for young people growing up in our digital age, because not only do these vital relationship skills struggle, but they never form. Turkle’s latest research shows that smartphone use also inhibits children from developing empathy.
I don’t doubt that the decision to buy your children smartphones was well-intentioned; if you need to get in touch with them, you can. Turkle cautions against this, as well, claiming that allowing your sons and daughters to navigate the world untethered to you “was a right of passage that communicated to children they were on their own and responsible. If they were frightened, they had to experience those feelings. The cellphone buffers this moment.”
That last bit may be a little hard for you. After all, if you have an umbrella that can be used to offer yourself or a loved one protection from the rain, why wouldn’t you use it? There are two solutions. The first is an old-school flip phone, which your child will most likely not appreciate, and it would not get rid of the texting during class issue. The second is investing in apps such as DinnerTime that allow you to shut the phone off to limit use, particularly during family time and school.
For or better or worse, smartphones have changed our world, are not going anywhere, and get more advanced by the minute. They provide a convenience and connection to an “always open” world that can be intoxicating. However, we know that having unlimited access to this enticing technology is actually very damaging; we should actively seek to impose limits on it.
Gerry Navarra is a social studies teacher and wrestling coach at Manchester High School.
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