Pamela Paul: It’s not kids with the cellphone problem. It’s parents

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The hardest rule I ever set for my kids was refusing them cellphones until high school.

I’d seen the research on the doleful effects of social media, screens and surveillance parenting on kids’ mental, physical and cognitive well-being. If it turns out that the data is wrong, I figured, they will have survived a mild deprivation in their relatively privileged lives and provided fodder for a future therapist’s couch.

“How did you manage?!” other parents asked, and I knew exactly what they meant. Much as parents don’t want to admit it, we need — or it feels like we need — our kids to have a phone.

They’ll be safer walking to school, we tell ourselves — fully aware that should they be hit by a car or snatched away, they won’t be texting Mom about the situation. Even in a school shooting, cellphones have as much potential for danger as they do for safety.

We tell ourselves the phone will give our kids a sense of independence, even though phone trackers let us know exactly where they are. It will teach our kids to be responsible, even though we pay the bill.

We may genuinely believe these little lies; we may just love the convenience. Phones let kids check the forecast themselves rather than yell for a weather report while getting dressed. Phones let kids distract themselves rather than distract us when we’re on our phones.

As much as we lament the besotted, agonized, needy relationship our kids have with their phones, that same phone lets parents off the hook. If we screw something up, we can always text: Remember your grandfather’s birthday! Don’t forget violin. So sorry, I can’t pick you up this afternoon. You forgot your Chromebook!

The news that some districts are cracking down on cellphones is thus a bewildering case of competing interests among kids, administrators, teachers, parents and other parents. It overturns many pro-tech school policies embraced before COVID and resorted to during lockdown. It’s also the smartest thing schools can do, and it’s about time it got done.

Years ago, schools largely rolled over on tech in the name of inculcating “21st-century skills.” Schools boasted Chromebooks for every child, wired education, all kinds of apps. According to the Department of Education, as of 2020, about 77% of schools prohibited nonacademic cellphone use. Note the caveat “nonacademic”; many schools had simply integrated phones into their curriculum.

When my kids were in middle school, for example, teachers repeatedly told kids to take photos of assignments; in science, recording images on cellphones was part of the lesson. In The Atlantic, Mark Oppenheimer described one school that “made no pretense of trying to control phone usage, and absurdly tried to make a virtue of being aggressively tech-forward by requiring phones for trivial tasks: At the beginning of the term, you had to scan a QR code to add or drop a course.”

Little surprise, then, that a new study by Common Sense Media found that 97% of teen and preteen respondents said they use their phones during the school day, for a median of 43 minutes, primarily for social media, gaming and YouTube. According to the authors, students reported that policies about phone use in schools vary — sometimes from classroom to classroom — and aren’t always enforced.

Now the enforcers are coming in. As Natasha Singer reported recently in The New York Times, Florida has issued a statewide prohibition against student cellphone use in the classroom, and school districts elsewhere — including those in South Portland, Maine, and Charlottesville, Virginia — have made similar moves. One district in Florida, Orange County, went so far as to ban phones during the school day entirely. The not-shocking result: less bullying, increased student engagement, even actual eye contact among students and teachers in the hallway.

We should know this by now. In 2018, a secondary school in Ireland decided to ban cellphones altogether. The result: a significant increase in student face-to-face social interactions. “It’s hard to measure, but we find the place has a happier atmosphere for everyone,” one administrator told The Irish Times.

It’s not the school’s job to police kids’ phone habits, something parents are acutely aware isn’t easy. And that gets to the thorny crux of the issue: Parents are often the problem. When one group of parents in my district confronted the administration about its lax policy toward cellphones, the principal said whenever he raised the issue, parents were the ones who complained. How would they reach their children?!

But if we expect our kids to comply with no-phones policies, we’ve got to get over the deprivation. Our own parents would just call the front office — in an emergency. Not because they wanted to make sure we remembered to walk the dog.

And really, if we’re trying to teach kids to be safe, responsible and independent, shouldn’t we give them the leeway to do so? Phones don’t teach kids these values; parents do.

For schools to enact what research overwhelmingly shows benefits students, we parents have to back them up. When parents say our kids are the ones with the cellphone problem, we’re just kidding ourselves.

Pamela Paul writes a column for the New York Times.

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