As school boards meet this summer, they will approve handbooks governing student behavior, educational requirements, visitor rules, safety, and general educational policies.
There is now overwhelming evidence that one of the most important policies they should implement to improve student mental health and educational performance is banning smartphones.
Jon Haidt is a social psychologist and professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University Stern School of Business who studies the impact of smartphones on today’s youth. He has found a concerning rise in anxiety, depression, behavior, and overall mental health all closely linked to the addictive use of smartphones.
Suicide and self-harm rates have increased dramatically among today’s youth, not just in America but in every country where their use is widespread.
In talking with school principals and educators, he was told that some kids entering sixth grade were already showing signs of anxiety and depression due to smartphone use while those entering ninth grade had them “baked in” to their behavior and mental health.
“To the teachers and administrators I spoke with, this wasn’t merely a coincidence,” Haidt writes in an article with the title, The Case For Phone-Free Schools. “They saw clear links between rising phone addiction and declining mental health, to say nothing of declining academic performance.”
These teachers and administrators “hated” the consequences they were seeing directly linked to student use of smartphones. “Drama, conflict, bullying, and scandal played out continually during the school day on platforms to which the staff had no access,” he writes.
Teachers face a constant battle monitoring students who find ways to check or send messages on their smartphones during class. Getting students to focus on what is taught in the classroom is getting more challenging. Their education is suffering.
One reason why young people have such difficulty resisting the addictive call of their smartphones is that their brain’s frontal cortex isn’t fully developed until about age 25. It is the region of our brain that governs our judgment, the weighing of consequences of behavior, self-control, and emotions.
Many adults struggle with resisting the siren call of their smartphones; kids find it far more difficult, suffering bouts of anxiety and distraction. “…imagine a phone in a child’s pocket, buzzing every few minutes with an invitation to do something other than pay attention. There’s no mature frontal cortex to help them stay on task,” Haidt writes.
School districts nationwide trying to implement policies banning smartphone use have faced the same challenges. Parents will argue their children need it to contact them about changes in plans for being picked up after school. Dozens of other such reasons are raised. Most are easily addressed by contacting school staff and having them relay messages.
In recent years, Haidt writes, the evidence has been mounting on the importance of phone-free schools to students’ mental health and their education, Haidt writes. Schools that have implemented such policies have seen significant improvements in their students’ behavior, focus, and interactions with fellow students.
“So the time is right for parents and educators to ask: Should we make the school day phone-free? Would that reduce rates of depression, anxiety, and self-harm? Would it improve educational outcomes? I believe that the answer to all of these questions is yes,” Haidt says.
If a school district decides it is time to remove smartphones from student access to what degree do they do it?
Does a school rely on student self-will by requiring them to place their smartphone in a desk or in their pocket? Won’t work. They find ways to check it. Do students leave them in their lockers? Ineffective.
“Just the potential distraction of knowing your phone is there, with texts and social-media posts waiting,” eats away at a student’s attention. “The closer the phone is to students’ awareness, the worse they perform on the tests. Even just having a phone in one’s pocket saps students’ abilities,” studies have shown, Haidt said.
When it comes to student mental health and happiness, the consequences of smartphones in schools spill over outside the classroom. They isolate kids in the hallways and lunchrooms. Rather than interact with their fellow students, they focus on their phones.
We’ve all seen couples sit down at a table with both quickly pulling out their phones, disappearing into another world, separate, apart from the person they should be interacting with in a relationship-deepening conversation.
Children see their parents do the same thing when eating breakfast, lunch, and supper. Children are isolated from loving concentration constantly.
In schools where students have ready access to phones outside of class time, they are more likely to say school is not where they feel they belong. When smartphones are banned and students interact with one another, students are more likely to feel a sense of belonging.
Those moments of laughing with friends, easing the stress of the day, lightening their moods, and building relationships are reduced or gone when smartphones are present. Instead, students dive right back into the steady stream of social media that is already the cause of anxiety, stress, and a poor self-image.
To effectively restrict smartphone use in our schools, there are only two paths to consider, Haidt writes.
One has students place their phones in lockable pouches. These pouches have devices like those in clothing stories that the teller unlocks when you checkout. While students can keep the pouch, they can’t open it until the end of the day. However, that phone proximity anxiety is still at work.
Another alternative is a phone locker where students place their phones when they arrive at school. They keep the locker key with them and retrieve their phone at day’s end.
Both these approaches to establishing a phone-free school “are the policies most likely to produce substantial educational, social, and mental-health benefits, because they are the only approaches that give students six or seven hours a day of time away from their phone,” Haidt says.