Save the Children: Eliminate Cellphones in Our Schools

Public Domain image

Vermont Senate Bill 284, “Phone-free School Legislation,” now sitting in the House Education Committee is winding its way through the legislature and should garner the attention of all legislators who care about the future wellbeing of our children.

A recent advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, warns parents about the mental health risks of social media usage among our young including sleep deprivation, depression, and anxiety. Children as young as ten are actively using social media platforms. “Social media use by youth is nearly universal. Up to 95% of youth ages 13–17 report using a social media platform, with more than a third saying they use social media “almost constantly.” Although 13 is the commonly required minimum age used by social media platforms in the U.S., nearly 40% of children ages 8–12 use social media.”

Common Sense Media reports that the average child in the U.S. has a smartphone by age 10. So, it’s not surprising that children in primary school are already experimenting with social media content. A survey carried out by the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital reports that even children as young as 7 are actively using social media apps.

In a devastating critique, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s New York Times #1  bestseller, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness Haidt details how the spike in teenage depression and anxiety has been shown scientifically to be caused by near constant use of cellphones and social media platforms. He makes the case, as well, that cellphones should be denied to children before high school and none should be on social media before age 16. But a defined age may not be effective since all children’s brains develop differently at different times.

Kid’s Brains and Screens by Melanie Hempe, a healthcare professional, is an evidenced-based, eight-part curriculum for parents and middle-schoolers on how to step away from screens and engage with friends, family members and their community, the only path to a healthy life.

According to the Vermont Department of Health (DOV), Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people in Vermont.

Scientific literature on the psychology of young people is rife with both warnings and intelligent fixes.

School must be a positive, inclusive, and safe environment for all students, where learning, focus, and safety are prioritized. Mobile phones, earbuds, and internet-connected watches undermine the educational experience by causing distraction and amplifying risks for cyberbullying, sextortion, sexual abuse grooming, and access to pornography.

Protesting the rising cost of education, many Vermont towns have voted down their local school budgets. But they forget what we expect of our schools. When I was teaching in the late ‘60s, we were held accountable for what our children learned. We also fed them hot lunch for which some paid. Our current failures to invest in community services elsewhere have come home to roost in our schools burdening them beyond their capacity or original purpose.

Healthcare is ballooning educational costs. Insurance rates are rising at between 15-20% per year and schools are confronting the added cost of competing for a dearth of nurses and social workers to help children struggling with health and emotional issues that we’re not treating elsewhere in local primary care and addiction and mental health counseling facilities. We’ve piled onto our schools our own upstream social failures such as ensuring that our children are cared-for after school hours, get adequate nutrition, have a home to return to after school or can access the mental and physiological healthcare they need. Do we really believe we’re over-paying our children’s teachers? Can we at least alleviate the additional burden of distraction and mental health by keeping cellphones out of our schools?

When I went to school in the ‘50s, the only classroom distractions were each other and a few shiny new cars we could see through the windows in the parking lot and, for some, daydreaming until called to account by the teacher. Our teachers, almost all women, were strict but kind. The relationship between teacher and student was personal and the only technology that a classroom had was the PA system announcing class changes, recess, or lunch. That continued in the all-male prep school I attended, though some had manual typewriters. Radios were prohibited in dorm rooms, but phonographs were allowed. There were no cars or girls to distract us.

In the last five years, we’ve hosted two foreign exchange students  ̶   one from Moldova and another from Serbia. Both were shocked by the active use of cellphones in their classrooms, with students texting one another during class, scanning social media, and even watching movies with earbuds on. We understand now that cellphone use is restricted in classrooms but allowed elsewhere is school.

Unfortunately, this is a school-by-school decision, placing the burden on school boards, administrators, and teachers. The proposed Phone-free School Legislation is not only the right choice, it’s both simpler and more equitable.

Below is April testimony in House Education from a Vermont mother of four and from a West Coast mother known to many as Paula Poundstone. As a former pre-cellphone teacher of French at Mt. Abraham in Bristol and the parent of four children and grandparent of two in school, I strongly agree with their testimony.

Politicians tend to avoid dissent and controversy and often emerge with wishy-washy, aspirational legislation that offends few and accomplishes little to solve the problem it addresses. Real leadership, however, courts, respects and records dissent and then moves us forward. Let’s hope that the wellbeing of our children impels such leadership and effective legislation.

The pushback from anxious parents is that a cellphone provides “safety.” They believe that a child with a cellphone will be able to contact their parents or authorities if they feel they’re in danger, and that parents should be able to contact their child in real time, or monitor their child’s location using a widely available app to track their location. They forget that the safer and more effective way to contact their child is to simply call the principal’s office.

This rising tide of parental anxiety is fed not only by a media industry dependent on eyeballs and clicks for revenue, but a recently published report by the ACLU explains how the emerging $3.1B EdTech Industry feeds on and profits from this parental anxiety. EdTech is growing at 8% a year, amplifying parent and school fears of school shootings, suicides, self-harm and bullying.

Then there’s the issue of privacy. According to The 74, an online nonprofit news organization covering education, 96% of school technology exposes student data, much of which can be monetized in marketing. This exposure increases danger and perpetuates discrimination against our most vulnerable and at-risk children.

The dangers of social media and smartphone use by children vastly exceed the well-marketed industry counter-narrative of safety. They also degrade the relationship between the learned and the learner. Prohibiting cellphones in our schools is no longer controversial in the mental-health field and is scientifically linked to mental health through dopamine studies.

Now is the time for the Agency of Education to adopt the following model policy to support school boards and governing bodies of independent schools (pre-kindergarten through high school) that requires them to develop their own policy relative to phones and electronic devices.

“Each school board and governing body of an independent school (pre-kindergarten through high school) will develop, adopt, and ensure implementation of the following:

Mobile phones and personal electronic devices will be turned off prior to the start of school/entering the school building and stored away for the duration of time on school campus by the following means:

  • Secure the phones – turned off – in the principal/admin office. (Examples include: a box or a shoe rack as utilized at Newark Elementary- Middle School and Williston Middle School.)
  • Use a product such as Yondr that functions to turn off the device and secure the personal device in a specific device locker or lockable pouch that can be carried in the backpack. (Examples include Hartford Memorial Middle School and Essex Middle School.)
  • Or a school can simply prohibit students from bringing a personal electronic device into the school building and insist they leave them at home.

There must be exceptions for students with medical needs or IEP/504 plans such that, if a physician or nurse practitioner determines the use of a personal electronic device is necessary for the health of the student or specialized learning needs outlined in an IEP/504 plan, this will be documented but will still prohibit use for non-medically exempt reasons.

In the event that a parent or caregiver needs to contact their child during the school day, they can call the main office or if a student needs to contact their parents they can go to the main office to call.

Fundamental to classroom learning is that students pay attention to their teacher. Educational tools include books, shared media, discussions and lectures. Anything else is a distraction.

In the case of cellphones and social media, we now have conclusive scientific evidence that not only do they compromise active learning, they’re increasingly damaging to the mental, intellectual, and emotional wellbeing of young people.

Let’s give teachers a break by eliminating cellphones and social media from their classrooms.

There’s no excuse for waiting. Urge your rep to support S.284, the Phone-free School Legislation. Our young people need and deserve this.

Comments are closed.