A Teacher’s Plea: Save Your Kids From Their Phones

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In August, I began my 11th year as a high school English teacher. After two years at home with my kids, I came back to the classroom ready to prepare students for the real world. One quarter of the school year has now gone by. Reflecting on the quarter and how my experience with older students is shaping me as a parent of young children, I leave school every day thinking one thing: I need to save my kids from cell phones.

When it comes to learning, developing emotional intelligence and empathy, forging self-awareness, exploring the complexities of the world, taking risks, cultivating morality, challenging a mind, and fostering curiosity, nothing is more disruptive and detrimental to those goals than the addiction our kids have to their cell phones.

When friends and family ask me how my new teaching job in Columbus is going, I can’t help but begin with how distracted my students are by their cell phones.

How bad is it? I spent one week documenting every time I saw a student distracted by their phone, using it when not sanctioned or for social media or texting. I have six pages of single-spaced notes. The numbers are appalling. Over a five-day period, I noted 279 instances of distracted phone use. That’s once every four minutes. And that doesn’t account for the time when I couldn’t take notes because I was directly teaching or working with small groups or the half dozen times when I wrote, “Too many to tally.”

Many of my students cannot engage with their education without a phone on their desk or an earbud pumping music. The majority walk the hallways listening to music or staring at a screen, walled off from their surroundings. Their phones provide a constant drip of empty pleasure and distraction.

When I ask a student to put a phone away, I’m met with an eye-roll or an angry outburst. Sometimes I’m just ignored. When I ask a repeat offender to give me their phone for the period, I’m met with more anger and profanity. I once touched a student’s phone, and she responded, “Don’t you ever touch my phone.”

I’ve seen a cheerful student look at a phone and change to dread in an instant. What photo or message just got blasted over social media?

I’ve seen tears well and fall after a glance at a phone. What text was just read? What insult was just hurled?

I’ve seen a class working diligently interrupted by a student air-dropping a photo to everyone. Snapchat a photo of your desk mate doing something silly or looking disheveled, and the whole class erupts.

Students tell me that headphones help them learn and concentrate. There is not a study out there that proves listening to music improves academic achievement. (Plus, those students’ grades often suggest otherwise.) There’s a difference between feeling content and concentrating. Our students are confusing contentment with concentration. Earbuds are a teenager’s pacifier. It’s time to ween because the evidence is plain and simple: music and devices hinder achievement.

While school systems have rules and regulations to guide cell phone use at school, the policies are rarely enforced uniformly. Each classroom, each teacher, each administrator has different expectations. If you’re the “strict teacher” who bans cell phones, you’ll inevitably drive yourself crazy trying to enforce a policy that others don’t care about or even deliberately contradict.

Early in the year I tried my best, but you read above what happened when I tried. And remember my numbers above? Once every four minutes a student had a phone out when he or she was not supposed to. You can imagine the disruption it would cause to stop a lesson or a one-on-one conference every four minutes to tell a student to put away a phone. At some point, to the admittedly severe detriment of my students, I had to move on. 

Education requires focus, commitment, and discomfort. Students have to be able to engage in a single task with an open mind, a critical eye, a sharply tuned sense of skepticism, and a clear head. A student cannot meet those standards with a cell phone in hand and a headphone lodged in ear.

So where does that leave things? The solution is in the hands of parents.

As parents, we must help curb the emotional attachment our children have to their screens. I’ve seen it with my kids. We used to use phones and tablets to calm them or keep them entertained during meals or long afternoons. When we took those devices away, we were met with total meltdowns.

Now we ban devices out at restaurants and at home almost entirely. When we’re together as a family (which is almost always), then we’re not using devices. Our leisure time is spent together exploring, creating, and experiencing, none of which require a screen.

It took a few weeks for our kids to get used to not having a phone at a restaurant, but we are proof that it is possible. Our meals out are so much more enjoyable now, too. If you want to do something, that’s the first thing I’d do: ban devices at meals.

In general, if you have young children, just take the devices away. Your kids don’t need them. Foster creativity and exploration without a screen. Keep art supplies set up at all times. Make sure the rooms where you congregate have books and puzzles at the ready. Legos, cars, blocks, and anything else that can be used to build should always be available.

Boredom should not lead to passive entertainment on a device. Boredom should lead to active exploration and creation with a tangible object.

If you have older kids who have their own phones, review everyone’s screen time at the end of a random day. Using either a native app or an app like Moment, reflect on everyone’s phone use. Talk about what apps were opened and for how long. Most usage tracking apps will say when the phone was used and for how long. If the phone was used during class, then talk about it. Ask why. I’d guess that English 11 didn’t require 24 minutes of Snapchat. The entire family will benefit from screen-time awareness. Chances are that you’ll curb your addiction, too.

I can hear the dissension out there. But I don’t want to ban phones at school entirely. They can be productive tools. I also recognize the safety and communication that phones allow for families. Though I will say that if you text your student during school, please send a quick follow-up that says, “Don’t text back. You are in school. Text me at lunch or during a break.” 

A total ban is unreasonable and probably impossible. But strict limitations could keep the outside world at bay while the important task of growing and learning takes place. Cell phone lockers outside of classrooms, for example, could have prevented my student from receiving an upsetting text from a family member. That lone text upset the student such that she left class, called the person, began yelling in the hallway, and ultimately blocked the person’s number out of frustration and sadness. As she calmed down, tears fell, and we walked to the guidance office. Before that text, she was calmly writing a character analysis. Then her entire world blew up.

All of us can develop better habits with our screens. And we have to help our children. They can’t do it themselves.

Our children need us to help them navigate a world where so many big companies are vying for their attention from morning until night. We can help our children be at ease with discomfort, disappointment, and boredom. We can help our children fully engage with their surroundings and their peers. We must develop comfort with the sensation of being alone with our minds and our thoughts. We can foster resilience and tenacity when faced with difficulty or challenge. Learning requires discomfort, focus, and patience. The phone provides too easy an escape into gossip and passive contentment. We must help them escape their deceptively comfortable digital cocoon.

We need to save our children from their phones.

For more, please read this article from The Washington Post.

For an in-depth guide on tech use organized by age-group, please click this link to The New York Times.

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