It’s a sign of the times. Kliff Kingsbury, new coach of the Arizona Cardinals, will schedule “cellphone breaks” every 20 minutes or so during team meetings because today’s players are “itching to get to those things.”
“You start to see hands twitching and legs shaking, and you know they need to get that social media fix,” said Kingsbury, “so we’ll let them hop over there and then get back in the meeting and refocus.”
I’ve seen the same behavior from my students in classes. But unlike Kingsbury, I believe yielding to the behavior only exacerbates a very real behavioral and cognitive crisis that psychologist Jean Twenge describes in the Atlantic article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”
“I call them iGen,” writes Twenge. “Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet.”
“The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health,” adds Twenge. “The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.”
I teach those teens, and I find the smartphone’s effect on them positively distressing.
In a recent class survey, 20 out of 21 of my Media Literacy students said they regularly sleep with their smartphone at arm’s length.
Twenge likewise noted that nearly all of her students at San Diego State University “slept with their phone, putting it under their pillow, on the mattress, or at least within an arm’s reach of the bed.” Consequently, “the smartphone is cutting into teens’ sleep: Many now sleep less than seven hours most nights.” Experts recommend teens get nine hours of sleep.
In addition, 12 of my 21 students reported their smartphone has had a negative effect on their reading habits, causing them to read less, while only three said that their smartphones encouraged more reading.
This situation is not surprising to Twenge, who found that one-third of U.S. high school seniors “did not read a book for pleasure in 2016.” That percentage is unquestionably higher today.
“This decline in reading print media — particularly the decline in reading books — is concerning,” added Twenge. “Reading long-form texts like books and magazine articles is really important for understanding complex ideas and for developing critical thinking skills.”
So how have Connecticut’s high schools responded to this smartphone dilemma? Most schools leave it up to individual classroom teachers to monitor cellphone use. But the inconsistency of the policy from classroom to classroom seems only to frustrate both students and teachers.
Case in point: Windsor High School, where “students cannot use their cellphones during class time unless their teacher permits,” according to an editorial in The Tomahawk, the student newspaper. “The only other time students can use their cellphone or any other electronics besides the provided school Chromebook is during the five-minute passing times and in the cafeteria during their lunch block.”
Administrators at WHS are considering a change in the policy because “they believe students have become less engaged in class due to their electronic devices and they have seen an increase of ‘drama’ occurring between students due to their phone usage.”
Many WHS students disagree with the potential policy change, claiming cellphones enable students to “perform certain tasks such as a survey or a Kahoot so they do not miss classwork.” In short, “by allowing students to use these cellphones, teachers are redirecting students’ minds back on academics and letting them receive a high-quality education.”
Pardon my skepticism, but the only thing I have witnessed is how cellphones do everything except “redirect students’ mind back on academics.”
That’s precisely why Seymour High School placed an outright ban on cellphones in 2017. You can’t argue with the results.
For her recent ABC news special “Screen Time,” Diane Sawyer visited Seymour and discovered something amazing: “No devices in the cafeteria and it’s filled with the sound of kids being kids.”
Not to mention, grades have improved and students can actually study now in study halls, according to principal James Freund.
Seymour’s policy works because it’s consistent from classroom to classroom, and it’s supported by administration. In other words, students receive the same message from every adult in the building: “You’re in school now, so academics take precedence. Save Instagram and texting for later.”
As Kimberly Martin, principal of Wilson High School in the nation’s capital, told Diane Sawyer, “We have classes about alcohol, drugs, and driving. Maybe it’s time to include a class on technological wellbeing.”
Now there’s an idea! I say we call the class, “Media Literacy.”
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in media literacy, journalism, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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