Kids are going to hate, hate, hate it, but the Sag Harbor School Board made a bold and overdue move by agreeing to ban smartphones during the day. We hope more districts will follow suit. Beginning in the fall, students at Pierson Middle and High School will have to put their phones into purpose-made individual pouches that can be unlocked only by tapping them on a proprietary device. Smartwatches and wireless headphones will also have to be stashed in the students’ own pouches.
Student distraction and hurtful behavior are the school administrators’ targets. They have powerful allies in making the case for the ban. A major United Nations report issued this week said that smartphone use could be directly linked to poor educational performance. Unesco, the educational, scientific, and cultural agency within the U.N., also cited research that phone use often has harmful effects on children’s emotional stability.
Cyberbullying gets the most attention in the media, but the effects of social media consumption by teens and preteens can also be insidious. The top apps on kids’ phones are YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram — a digital alternate universe into which they descend up to eight hours a day, according to various studies, when television, gaming, and streaming services are included. Risks of digital addiction among children also include not getting enough sleep, obesity, and vision problems.
Social media apps in particular can lead to poor self-image and body-image issues and the disruptive state of mind known as FOMO, fear of missing out. Reading and outdoor activity take a hit. Phone-addicted kids spend less time with family and friends and can get almost unbearably surly when forced away from their devices. We know of one teenager who was sent home from an overseas family birthday trip after he refused to take part in activities or even leave his hotel room because he did not want to pull himself away.
Videos of stunts or challenges can inspire unsafe copycat behavior. Violence and risk-taking may increase among teens who consume too much media. They can be exposed to sexual content, negative stereotypes, racism, substance abuse, misleading or inaccurate information, and highly targeted advertising. Caregivers are also often surprised to see high fees pop up on credit card bills from games and services that kids might not have even understood they signed up for. The sudden rise of artificial intelligence, or A.I., has opened up a whole new realm of potential cheating.
“Putting learners first,” the Unesco report’s authors declared, should be the goal for educational institutions considering smartphone policies. Beyond smartphones, technology in general, such as tablets or laptops, could be distracting and harm student performance and did not inherently improve education in any demonstrable way. The report cited China, where the use of digital devices is limited to 30 percent of teaching time, and where students are expected to take regular screen-time breaks.
Educators cannot do much about what students do in their homes and off school grounds. What they can do is improve children’s chances of learning. The coming Pierson smartphone ban does just that.