The research is clear: Smartphones undermine attention, learning, relationships, and belonging.
Jon, I work at a school which has focused on eliminating phones and done a great job of it. The problem now is that all the things that students were doing on their phones they are now able to do on their laptops. The next frontier in this battle is getting laptops out of classrooms; they are destroying students’ ability to write and think.
Brilliant as always, Jonathan. It is telling that many Silicon Valley executives send their kids to phone free schools, while they engineer products more addictive than cigarettes. Parents need to take more responsibility because they control purchasing decisions and model behavior. I am shocked by how many toddlers are dependent on screens because their parents are too exhausted to coax them through meals, diaper changes, etc.
Re "They said too many parents would be upset if they could not reach their children during the school day."
I'm always bemused that adults insist on constant contact with their children (or each other) when, after all, this was not a possibility for virtually 100% of human history and we all seemed to do just fine.
We don't allow smoking at schools because of the health risks, we need to think of smart phones the same way. Jonathan, I just wrote about reversing the 1:1 trend in schools where every child, in some cases as early as grade one are given a device to use (i.e. chrome book, iPad, laptop). The free access to these devices causes just as much harm to the learning process in my view as phones! We need to get back to face to face communication in as many areas of our lives as we can, especially for children. Thanks for all the work that you do!
Dr. Haidt, I've commented on this topic with you many times previously. I'm a retired high school teacher, and among the confluence of events that prompted my exit was the invasion of hand-held technology in my classroom.
In essence, I was competing with the tech giants' best and brightest for students attention. And losing. I wrote back in Sept. 2021: "The usurpers were too smart, too manipulative and brazenly uncaring. Here I was, at a teacher’s salary, pitted against youthful MENSA app developers in Silicon Valley whose pay scales and IQs exceed mine by factors of 100 ... I had no chance."
You and Greg Lukianoff are referenced in this piece. '
This problem is as damaging to America's future as almost any other social malaise. I'm glad you and others are focusing on it and offering solutions.
Thank you for this excellent post Jon! Your work is not just drawing attention to the fact that phones are destroying our children's attention, relationships, and mental health, but also providing specific data, delivers the potency that parents and teachers need to enact changes. I especially appreciate how you address the opposing arguments and your proposition to simply provide a dumb phone.
I recently organized a 30-day digital detox within the substack community https://schooloftheunconformed.substack.com/p/from-feeding-moloch-to-digital-minimalism, and am now reading about all the freedoms that the participants regained during this time. Most of them deleted all social media apps, many of them kept their phone away from their body or even in a separate room, and none of them plan on going back to their anxiety-provoking scrolling habits. They have rediscovered what it means to have cognitive liberty and even state that they have 'limit-less potential', and simply feel normal again.
They have reawakened to the freedom of limits. Why would we take this freedom away from our children if we can choose a different path? Thanks again for your essential and wonderful work!
Thank you, Dr. Haidt. The benefits of phone-free schools seem clear, but I’m skeptical that such policies could be implemented without significant buy-in from students and parents. I’m Gen Z, but I’m old enough to remember hearing about how much of a victory it was when the student government at my neighborhood high school convinced the administration to begin allowing phones at lunch. (That was c. 2012.) Phones have only become bigger parts of social life since then, so unless students and parents are also on board, I think we’d only see major pushback and eventual folding from administrators. Have you and Zach considered strategies for increasing buy-in among students themselves for any of these phone-free policies?
From Verizon's page on the GizmoWatch:
"From the dashboard, parents can activate school mode or quiet mode, which limits device use during the day.
“We had a rule: It was not allowed to go to school,” says Bonikowske. “We had an incident where it did go to school. I got the notification on the phone, and I called him, heard the classroom in the background, and I muted it. I emailed the teacher, and said ‘I’ll come pick it up.’”
Apple/Android should have "School Mode" for school-aged children, with parental control of settings, apps and access. This is an area where physical controls are almost useless - I suspect the reason for its conspicuous absence is are the entrenched attention economy interests who would scream bloody murder at any incursion on their market, like the sugar lobby brooks no interference in the production and marketing of children's cereals.
I've been getting more strict on cellphones in my college classroom. It has had a benefit on engagement for sure. Next up is the laptops!
Absolutely spot on. I am a high school teacher, and as I kept reading I kept saying “yes....yes...yes! So true”. My school has a phone policy of “Phones should be in backpacks when in class”, but as it turns out, students are addicted and can’t get off. Admittedly, I get too exhausted to manage phone use, so, it happens anyways. I hope administrators across the country see this as a common sense issue, get rid of the phones in school, period. Just brilliant stuff from Jon, and everything in here was right there with my experience this past school year.
It is not a small caveat that schools still have to deal with students messaging via laptops and tablet — still, there is much, much I agree with in this piece. Having seen what happened over two decades of teaching MS & HS (2000-2021), I would have found any schoolwide attempt to reduce tech distractions welcome. Instead, teachers were left to our own devices (pun intended) and constantly pressured to use more tech. (Also key to student mental health issues: online grade books where they can monitor grades like they are day-trading stocks.)
I wrote a related piece a few months ago: https://annelutzfernandez.substack.com/p/taking-on-social-medias-hold-on-children
There is also the question of the impact of parental phone use on children's mental health. Its tragic and infuriating when you see a family together and the parents are ignoring the kids and glued to their phones, especially if the kids are in the 5-12 age range. I really wonder what it is doing for the children's self-esteem and social skills, not to mention their relationship with the parents, as well as setting an example which kids will pick up. As a parent of young children (eldest 5) I am becoming hyper aware of how my own phone and device use impacts them. I am trying to minimise use in front of them, going as far as hiding my phone inside a paperback book when I really need to use it.
Re school shootings, the real deciding factor is that school shootings are very very rare, while phones (and their attendant harms) are omnipresent. The balancing test is pretty clear.
I was in middle school on 9/11, pre-cell phone, in a commuter suburb of New York. Because there were no cell phones, teachers were sending kids home on the buses without knowing if their parents would be home to meet them. (They actually cancelled all afterschool activities but also said the school phones were down and you couldn't call home because they kept a total lid on news of the attacks for the whole school day). The worst part of the day wasn't the lack of phones, and it wouldn't make sense to have phones everywhere for the sake of those rare, horrific events.
I think the only realistic way to prevent phone use is to block cellular access in schools. This can be done through a variety of methods, active jamming and passive isolation (ie make schools into a "Faraday Cage"). In fact the high school my kids went to was that way naturally because so many rooms were interior in a brick building (a product of the reversal of the open classroom mess) and they essentially would not work. Virtually all schools have private wifi networks for staff but not students so it wouldn't interfere with how they use electronic tools. Of course as you mention the politics behind implementing this would be difficult given current parenting paranoia. But there are technical solutions that would be very hard for any individual to bypass.
I like the idea. Students will unquestionably learn better in class without their phones. As for laptops, why are they needed in class? I really don't know as my kids are adults now (35, 32, 29) so my next school age kid experience will come when my kids grapple with their kids, my grandkids.
Why not explore and teach better ways of using phones? Speaking personally: i had problems with phone use. Eventually, I learned to use social media in a way that was good for my mental health and relationships.
My concern with the ‘no phone’ rule is that kids will use them outside school. so, many (or even all) of the problems will still exist. And then, when they become 18, they’ll never have learned skills to use them well.
I suspect that schools that implement a ‘no phone rule’ may not see much improvement.
Also, It’s a little odd to make a rule when adults don’t have the answer for themselves. Kids imitate. If parents use the phones well, kids will learn from that behavior. Many adults have problems with their phones. Until we solve that problem. I’m not sure what we’re going to teach kids.
I’m curious: do the authors use phones well? How so? what are they teaching their kids? Is it working?
I am extremely skeptical of any ‘rule’ that someone cannot personally use themselves :)