Opinion: Georgia schools should cut the cord on smartphones in class

Schools have realized they’ve lost the battle for student attention to the ubiquitous smartphone. Yet many hesitate to ban the phones outright. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Schools have realized they’ve lost the battle for student attention to the ubiquitous smartphone. Yet many hesitate to ban the phones outright. (Dreamstime/TNS)

In positing how technology will create new career options, Chris Key, executive director of student advancement in DeKalb County Schools, drew chuckles at a recent education event when he predicted a future demand for “social media detox therapists.”

Many in Key’s audience of educators and education advocates would likely contend those detox therapists need to be deployed now. I think so, too.

Across Georgia and the nation, schools have realized they’re losing the battle for student attention to the ubiquitous and irresistible smartphone.

Parents, too, are slowly beginning to embrace the “phone-free childhood” movement and considering the “Wait Until 8th” pledge that endorses delaying giving kids phones until at least the end of eighth grade. Twice in the last week, I’ve seen social media posts from newcomers to metro Atlanta searching for schools that outlaw cellphones.

A decade ago, many schools sought to incorporate smartphones into classrooms as a tool for learning. Technology proponents called them the new calculators, which, they pointed out, were also once forbidden in class.

But calculators didn’t offer TikTok, as smartphones do. And it turns out students much prefer scrolling TikTok to math theorems.

Pediatrician Dr. Michael Rich, director and founder of the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital, noted on a recent podcast on kids and screens, “If you think about it, these phones are incredibly powerful tools. They’re more than a million times more powerful than the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon. And 99% of what’s on there is distraction, distraction from whatever is happening in front of you, whether it be a class in school or hanging out with your friends or going for a walk.”

Many schools prohibit cellphones in classrooms, but it falls on teachers to police them and it’s not easy. In a staff meeting in July, Marietta City Schools Superintendent Grant Rivera pumped his fist and stamped his foot to emphasize the district could not reach its ambitious literacy goals without curtailing cellphones.

But a few months into the school year, Marietta teachers were discouraged and worn out attempting to rein in phones. Last week, Rivera proposed Marietta become the first system in Georgia to pilot Yondr, a lockable pouch for phones common at concerts but now moving into schools. The school board is expected to vote on the plan in June.

Atlanta’s Midtown High School has also made a decision to ban cellphones from its classrooms and hallways. In a letter to families Tuesday morning, principal Betsy Bockman wrote, “We polled our teaching staff about the biggest challenges to teaching at Midtown High. Policing cell phone use and competing with cell phones for student attention was by far the biggest challenge listed by teachers. This feedback came from across a wide spectrum of grade levels, departments and courses. The burden on our teaching and administrative staff to manage cell phones and the behaviors enabled by cell phones is considerable.”

As a parent herself, Bockman understands the challenge ahead and is asking parents to support the school in its plan to stop kids from having phones with them in the building. “Changing habits and patterns will be a challenge. Any plan will have an adjustment period as we work out the kinks and concerns...We truly believe that the benefits to students’ well-being, their academic success and their safety will be enormous,” she wrote.

Rivera has long worried about cellphones but found almost no support to limit them in a 2020 family survey. Since outlining the pouch plan for middle grades starting next year, he said, “There hasn’t been a single person who said to me in 2024 what they said to me in 2020.”

In those four years, the number of kids with phones has exploded. But so have fears over the impact on their mental health.

Common Sense Media estimates 88% to 95% of teens, ages 13 to 18, now have their own smartphones. When Common Sense Media examined how often kids pull out their phones in school, it found 97% of students reported using their phones during the school day for a median of 43 minutes. Kids mostly texted and looked at TikTok and YouTube.

The 2023 Common Sense report, “Constant Companion,” found overall that students used their smartphones almost four and a half hours a day. Reflective of the industry’s deliberate strategies to mesmerize users, children in the study received a median of 237 notifications a day from their phones, a siren call they cannot resist answering.

Research shows kids and teens, despite the 24/7 connectivity available in their back pockets, are lonelier and more despairing than previous generations. Higher daily doses of social media are linked to anxiety, depression and lower grade-point averages. The decline of youth mental health and the uptick in adolescent suicide and self-harm align with the surge in smartphones and social media apps that broadened bullying from the playground to the web.

Among recent headlines on the fallout from digital distractions: “The Smartphone Kids Are Not All Right,”Wanna raise a messed-up kid? Give them a smartphone,” and “Is This the End of Reading?”

With so much angst, the obvious question is: Why can’t schools just tell parents to keep the phones at home so students can be present and attentive at school?

That’s where it gets complicated. As many school districts know firsthand, some parents object to strict bans on phone usage. After all, they’re the ones buying smartphones for 10-year-olds. Parents defend that decision by contending their kids need phones for emergencies, including the chilling possibility of a shooting at their school.

In Atlanta in November, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of the bestselling and influential new book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness,” warned that parents are fixated on the wrong threats. “We have become overprotective of our kids in the real world, which is very safe,” he said, “and left them unprotected in the virtual world that does nothing of value for them and is actually full of danger.”

Rivera believes parents are now seeing the downside of a phone-centered childhood and seeking community solidarity to reverse it.

“I think families are desperate to have momentum and numbers on their side,” he said. “All I know is the time is right for Marietta. Yes, we have to navigate all the complexities of doing it, but I have received incredible support from families and overwhelming support from teachers. We cannot go back to what we had in the past.”