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November 8, 2023

Smartphones Are Dumb

They distract from life, they contribute to poor mental health outcomes, and they hurt academics.

Jonathan Haidt is on a mission to understand what has gone wrong with our school-age children. As a noted psychology professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, Haidt noticed a change in students both socially and academically starting in 2012. Students are lonelier, not as intellectually engaged, and developing mental health problems at an alarming rate.

What happened in 2012? Well, that was when smartphones really took off in the mainstream and flip phones went the way of the rotary dial. Also, that was when Instagram started to garner popularity among young women especially, giving birth to the selfie culture and all the toxicity that comes with the curated social media life. Haidt started researching and studying this phenomenon in an attempt to help these poor kids who were (and are) really suffering.

Frankly, his concern is one that many who are teachers share. My own experience with the modern student and smart devices has had more negative connotations than good. Some firsthand experiences: children as young as fourth grade watching porn during school hours; first graders with smartwatches calling their parents when they got in trouble at school; middle school girls changing drastically from happy, well-adjusted kids to making all the wrong life choices because TikTok and Instagram told them it was cool; and high schoolers being mute during lunch, mindlessly scrolling instead of hanging out with their friends. Most schools do little to nothing to regulate students’ smartphone use even after the obvious downsides and limited upsides.

Smartphones, the Internet, and specifically social media are not good for the prefrontal cortex. Just as a reminder, the prefrontal cortex (which is concerned with decision-making and long-term planning and consequences) isn’t fully developed in humans until the age of 25. These kids simply do not have a developed-enough brain to resist the temptation and constant distraction these cell phones supply and quickly get addicted to the dopamine hits that their brains have been trained to crave.

In Haidt’s conversations with schools, the consensus was that smartphones were the bane of students’ learning and teachers being able to be effective in communicating their lessons. Incorporating technology into lessons seemed to be a good solution along with teaching students how to academically use the smart device. However, any use of smartphones in this capacity isn’t really a good solution either since even having the device out is too great a temptation for kids to get distracted.

This academic decline that Haidt and others noticed is an international phenomenon. In the U.S., based on the nation’s report card’s (NAEP) long-term assessment scores, 2012 marked the highest scores in reading and math. Since then, those scores have drastically sunk. There are many factors that have gone into that steep decline, but smartphones are certainly part of it.

Haidt proposes that schools outright ban smartphones from school property. While this would be an excellent solution to at least give these kids a six- to eight-hour detox from their phones, some parents would have a very hard time with this. Many parents want to be able to reach their child at any moment of the school day. In this day and age, it’s hard to blame them. However, parents not able or willing to police their children’s device use or prevent them from having access to social media is also a huge part of the problem. Even then, that situation probably has more to do with parents being naïve about the significant increase in online dangers. Moreover, technology is changing faster than many parents can keep up with.

Haidt has many ideas to help guide both parents and government bodies in regulating the use of smartphones and social media for kids. First, he suggests that parents not given their child a phone until they are 14 and not let them have access to social media until they are 16. Considering how predators are able to circumvent the “protections” that social media has put in place, 16 still seems too young.

Haidt also proposes that government entities pilot his ideas on top of providing security to prevent children from accessing their phones during school hours. His ideas would continue to give parents the freedoms to parent their children with their devices while also giving the school authority to ban the distracting phones and ultimately help these kids both academically and socially.

Frankly, even if some of these ideas are gradually implemented and prove to help turn the tide for kids, it’s too little, too late for the majority of Gen Z. They are already too addicted and are suffering the grievous consequences of a smartphone-induced dopamine coma. As our Thomas Gallatin recently wrote: “Adults registering the highest rate of loneliness were the youngest adults, age 19 to 29, with 27% claiming a significant rate of loneliness. That’s incredibly ironic and also telling given that young adults are the most Internet-connected generation — often described as online natives, having not known a world without the Internet.”

Loneliness, lack of skills to cope with social interactions, and lack of academic rigor are plaguing Gen Z.

Smartphones and social media are probably just the tip of the iceberg of what is ailing our students. It would be interesting and very likely good for them to have an opportunity to unplug from their smartphones, as Haidt suggested. It is giving them the gift of social interaction, a change to enjoy learning without distractions, and a chance to be kids.

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