Put the phones down

If we had any sense as a culture, we’d recognize that putting smartphones and social media in the hands of children and adolescents makes as much sense as handing out whiskey sours in the school cafeteria.

Below view of group of teenagers using smart phone at school.

“Research finds a correlation between cellphone use and lower grades and test scores,” according to a recent article in The Washington Post.


As far as I’m concerned, they can’t put warning labels on social media websites soon enough. Indeed, I’d go a lot further. I’d consider banning smartphones altogether for children under 16.

Me, I’m so old I can remember when what Vice President Al Gore called “the information superhighway” was going to usher in a new Golden Age of enlightenment and democratic well-being.

Instead, we got flat-earth theorists, high school boys sending “d—k pics” to girls in their geometry class, porn addiction and MAGA. Turns out most people, adolescents in particular, don’t need (and certainly haven’t got the critical thinking skills to cope with) the veritable tsunami of titillation, disinformation and delusion that comes pouring in over the internet.

I was recently shocked to learn from a friend who’s a high school teacher that her students are permitted to bring cellphones to class. What can educators responsible for this situation have been thinking? They may as well shut down classes altogether. There’s no chance of getting and keeping high school kids’ attention with the accursed things buzzing in their pockets.

Back in my own school days, teachers pretended they were unaware of boys carrying transistor radios during the World Series, but that was a special circumstance — not smutty videos or digitally created nude photos of our female classmates.

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If we had any sense as a culture, we’d recognize that putting smartphones in the hands of children and adolescents makes about as much sense as handing out whiskey sours in the school cafeteria.

According to a recent article in The Washington Post, “research finds a correlation between cellphone use and lower grades and test scores.” How could it be otherwise? Furthermore, “a recent Gallup poll shows teens spend an average of nearly five hours a day just on social media — not including games and texts. A report by Common Sense Media finds teens check their phones an average of more than 100 times a day.”

Social scientist Jonathan Haidt, who has made a personal crusade out of warning against what he sees as the dire effects of cellphone addiction, noted: “I recently surveyed my students at NYU, and most of them reported that the very first thing they do when they open their eyes in the morning is check their texts, direct messages and social media feeds. It’s also the last thing they do before they close their eyes at night.”

Some think Haidt has contributed to what one academic critic calls a “moral panic” scaring parents needlessly. He counters by pointing to studies showing the typical American adolescent “now gets 237 notifications a day, roughly 15 every waking hour.”

I’m sorry, but that’s crazy.

And crazy-making, too. According to U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, writing in The New York Times: “The mental health crisis among young people is an emergency — and social media has emerged as an important contributor. Adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double the risk of anxiety and depression symptoms, and the average daily use in this age group, as of the summer of 2023, was 4.8 hours. Additionally, nearly half of adolescents say social media makes them feel worse about their bodies.”

It’s not just in the United States either. Haidt has pointed out the skyrocketing rates of adolescent depression and suicide — they rose more than 50% between 2010 and 2019, when widespread smartphone use began. “Similar patterns emerged around the same time in Canada, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, the Nordic countries, and beyond,” he said.

Basically, anywhere the wonders of the information superhighway were bestowed willy-nilly upon the young. Academic achievement began to slide around the same time. It’s gotten to where a teenager reading a book is a rare phenomenon. We’re raising a semi-literate generation. No wonder they’re so easily bamboozled by Russian propaganda.

Nobody meant for these things to happen, but by encouraging near-universal cellphone usage among the young, with social media algorithms designed to lure users ever deeper into the online world, we’ve been conducting a vast, uncontrolled social experiment with unforeseen results on the most vulnerable members of society.

Skeptics point to other potential causes — financial panics, mass school shootings and active shooter drills, the COVID pandemic, the opioid crisis, even global climate change. But while these events might have been contributing factors in some countries, none can explain both the timing and international scope of the disaster.

The good news is the damage can be reversed if we have the will. Washington Post columnist Kate Cohen writes of visiting a high school near Albany where cellphones have been banned to nearly everybody’s satisfaction — including students’, many of whom say they’re relieved not to have to deal with the constant intrusion.

That should happen everywhere, and for pretty much the same reason we don’t serve whiskey sours in school cafeterias.

Kids can’t handle them.

Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.”

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