Rerunning The Same Script

All of a sudden, everywhere you look, people want to ban smartphones in schools. At least that’s what the adults want.

When it comes to major decisions related to public education, we hardly ever ask the kids themselves about how and why to do stuff like this.

Regardless of that, the two largest school systems in the country, New York City and Los Angeles, will have a ban in place when students return in the fall. Florida and Indiana also have state-wide restrictions on student phone use, and at least eight other states are considering bans of some kind.

And just this week, our MAGA-wannabe governor here in Virginia issued an executive order calling for “‘phone-free’ public schools”. Which doesn’t have any real force of law but he will make it sound like it does.

But this is not really “all of a sudden”, is it? None of this is new. Schools have tried banning these devices since they first became popular about fifteen years ago.

New York City, for example, tried prohibiting phones and abandoned the policy in 2015. And most schools in the US already have some kind of restrictions in place.

Education Department data suggest that a majority of schools prohibit nonacademic cellphone use during school hours, but the enforcement of those policies is often lax — teachers can’t confront every student or confiscate every device; some report students request bathroom breaks to check their notifications in the stalls. Phones are still in hand between classes, at lunch and recess, and often during instructional time despite putative bans — 97 percent of teens report using their phones during the school day, mostly for nonacademic purposes.

So, why the fuss and political posturing now?

The most common reason offered for the restrictions on student cell phone use is that teachers and others say they are a distraction. Which should generate some hard questions about the relevancy of the instruction that the kids are not paying attention to instead of banning phones. But it never does.

Increasingly, advocates of bans also point to an advisory from U.S. surgeon general who wrote that social media “might be linked to the growing mental health crisis among teens” and various papers that suggest a link between phones and mental health issues.

However, that’s another example of blaming technology for a much more complex societal problem. Rather than putting some real resources into addressing the larger issue, we fall back on the simplistic approach of trying to block the devices used for the interactions.

In this end, all this high-profile activity to stop student use of smartphones is nothing but a rerun of a script that is decades, maybe centuries, old.

Bans when they are employed in an effort to change behavior, never work. Especially when trying to alter the behavior of children and teens.

In Jurassic Park, the mathematician Ian Malcolm (the brilliant Jeff Goldblum) famously stated that “Life finds a way”. I would argue that, when it comes to connecting with their interests and friends, kids do as well.

The no-phones sign was seen only a couple of years ago in a high school library here in our overly-large school district.

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