It was still a little different when my kids were young. My daughter, at about 15, desperately wanted a Blackberry, then affectionately known as a “Crackberry” for its addictive qualities. It was already obvious that “screens,” as we called them, presented a danger to kids. Too shiny. Too attractive. Too addictive. Once they had them, they would never put them down, so we were the mean parents who refused to let our children have screens.
I got a Blackberry box from the cellphone store and we filled it with blackberries we purchased from the fruit counter at the supermarket. On her birthday, we gave it to our daughter, who lost her mind when she ripped off the wrapping paper, only to find the punchline to our joke. She was heartbroken. We then gave her our real gift, a Motorola flip-phone. She was somewhat mollified, although it wasn’t a crackberry. Crackberries were cool. Flip-phones were for old fogies. Like us.
We broke our rule for two reasons, neither of which was good. First, because all the other kids had at least a cellphone, if not a crackberry, and second, because she wanted one so badly and it was hard to disappoint a child we adored. We put strict limits on its use, and our daughter was good about it and complied, but still we worried that it was a terrible decision.
“How did you manage?!” other parents asked, and I knew exactly what they meant. Much as parents don’t want to admit it, we need — or it feels like we need — our kids to have a phone.
They’ll be safer walking to school, we tell ourselves — fully aware that should they be hit by a car or snatched away, they won’t be texting Mom about the situation. Even in a school shooting, cellphones have as much potential for danger as they do for safety.
We tell ourselves the phone will give our kids a sense of independence, even though phone trackers let us know exactly where they are. It will teach our kids to be responsible, even though we pay the bill.
Back then, we didn’t pretend it was about safety. Sure, they could call us if they needed us, but pretty much everybody alive managed to survive without them, quite well for the most part, and there was no need to be in constant contact. It might be convenient, but it was hardly necessary.
The only aspect of necessity was making your child an “outcast” among her peers when she was the only kid who couldn’t text, or use the AOL app that was still dominant at the time, or couldn’t look at a cute cat pic that all the other kids were going wild about. No parent wants their child to be an outcast among their peers, and that meant that our child’s world was controlled by the lowest common denominator, the parent who thought nothing about screens and was the first to give their kid a crackberry.
We may genuinely believe these little lies; we may just love the convenience. Phones let kids check the forecast themselves rather than yell for a weather report while getting dressed. Phones let kids distract themselves rather than distract us when we’re on our phones.
Schools are finally, more than a decade later, coming to the realization that cellphones in school are a huge distraction that significantly impairs students ability to learn.
The news that some districts are cracking down on cellphones is thus a bewildering case of competing interests among kids, administrators, teachers, parents and other parents. It overturns many pro-tech school policies embraced before Covid and resorted to during lockdown. It’s also the smartest thing schools can do, and it’s about time it got done.
The problem, however, is that cellphones, or more aptly, screens, have become ubiquitous and enmeshed in the mechanics of education.
Schools boasted Chromebooks for every child, wired education, all kinds of apps. According to the Department of Education, as of 2020, about 77 percent of schools prohibited nonacademic cellphone use. Note the caveat “nonacademic”; many schools had simply integrated phones into their curriculum.
When my kids were in middle school, for example, teachers repeatedly told kids to take photos of assignments; in science, recording images on cellphones was part of the lesson. In The Atlantic, Mark Oppenheimer described one school that “made no pretense of trying to control phone usage, and absurdly tried to make a virtue of being aggressively tech-forward by requiring phones for trivial tasks: At the beginning of the term, you had to scan a QR code to add or drop a course.”
How can you simultaneously require screens as a basic tool of the curriculum, while expecting students not to watch the latest viral TikTok?
Little surprise then, that a new study by Common Sense Media found that 97 percent of teen and pre-teen respondents said they use their phones during the school day, for a median of 43 minutes, primarily for social media, gaming and YouTube.
So now schools are beginning to have the epiphany that screens might not be good for education, that students can’t be expected to not check for that text when the ding goes off? As the song said when soldiers returned from World War II, how do you keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree? Children have been weaned on smartphones and they know what they can do, what they want them to to, and they were blessed both by parents and schools. What could be wrong?
It’s not the school’s job to police kids’ phone habits, something parents are acutely aware isn’t easy. And that gets to the thorny crux of the issue: Parents are often the problem. When one group of parents in my district confronted the administration about its lax policy toward cellphones, the principal said whenever he raised the issue, parents were the ones who complained. How would they reach their children?!
They’re not wrong, although it might be a wee bit disingenuous of school administrators to not shoulder some of the blame given that they took advantage of screens when it served their purpose as well. But regardless of parents and teachers telling the little lies, children are already consumed by the world of screens. Is there any going back to the farm?