The ‘Single Greatest Hindrance’ to Learning

Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week, I asked readers if parents should stop giving their children smartphones before high school.

Replies have been edited for length and clarity.

Eric is a teacher. He writes:

Cell phones are the single biggest addiction, obsession, and obstacle to learning, maturing, and socializing that I have seen in almost 20 years as an educator. Most students—hell, most adults—are powerless to resist the temptation to stay continually connected to their phones. Students know better than anyone just how distracting and disruptive they are, and, if being honest, will almost unanimously say that they are better students and people when their phone is out of sight. The fact that more schools do not help students by removing the single greatest hindrance to the educational experience we have ever seen is baffling, and it will not be seen favorably by those who look back at it.

Elizabeth is the mother of 9-year-old twins:

We are in Barcelona this year, and my daughters attend a school where phones are not allowed. They simply tell students to leave their phones (if they have them) at home. Kids play and talk during recess. The second day of school I arrived to take my daughters to an appointment. I found them walking around the school yard holding hands with a new “best friend” chatting and giggling. When I left with my daughters, all the other girls in the class clustered around to say goodbye. This school also has three 45-minute periods of recess during the day in addition to a lunch hour, so there is lots of time for socialization and minimally supervised play.

Right after smartphones came on the market, we didn’t know the effects on children and teens (and adults!). Now that the effects on mental health, attention, and learning have become clear, there’s bound to be a sea-change where more and more parents won’t allow children and teens smartphones. I’ve told my kids they can have a smartphone when they can afford to buy one and pay for their own monthly plan. I will buy them a dumb phone when they are 16 and driving by themselves. Until then they have a landline, an analog watch, a time that they should be back home, and the freedom to roam the neighborhood.

Ben is going to be a senior in high school and writes that “everyone I know, myself included, are addicted to their phones.” He continues:

My parents did not let me get a phone until sixth grade (having a phone in middle school is basically a necessity) and no social media until 10th, far later than most of my peers. While frustrating at the time, my parents made the right call. I’ve seen kids become depressed over social media, watched it end relationships, and seen it make many people detached from reality. When I got social media, I was mature enough to use it, and waiting to use it has lessened my addiction to it. I have elementary-age siblings, and seeing fourth or fifth graders with a phone will never stop being weird.

I understand why parents give their children phones. It makes sense at the time because their kids are always at practice or a friend’s house. But five years later, in middle or high school, the addiction is so strong that most kids can’t go a single class period without being on their phone. And I know the amount of time and energy that female friends and people I’ve been in relationships with spend on having a perfect Instagram profile.

Parents refusing to give a phone before high school will only cause resentment and some social isolation. But phones should not be given to elementary schoolers; social media should not be allowed before high school, and once there, access should be based on maturity. These technologies rule my friends’ and my relationships and time, and while it’s not exactly a bad thing, everyone I know occasionally wishes it would all just go away.

Jaleelah got her first smartphone when she was 12 and enjoyed having Google Maps. She writes:

I think that moving straight from not owning a smartphone to using one without restrictions is a bad idea. The transition from middle school to high school is already a difficult one. Increased workload, increased physical freedom, and increased expectations of self-management make it hard for 14-year-olds to balance their priorities. The added variable of a new, addictive, validation-providing device can make it even harder for ninth graders to learn the study skills required to graduate. One of my high-school teachers enforced anti-phone policies for his youngest classes, but intentionally allowed them in class in the highest grades in order to force students to learn self-regulation. I think this is a good idea. Phones should be completely banned from middle schools, but restrictions should progressively loosen throughout high school (alongside lessons about managing distractions) in order to prepare students for adult life.

Zack is an English teacher at a public high school in Montgomery County, Maryland. He has read many assignments in which students reflect on their beliefs about smartphones and social media.

He writes:

My school is in a fairly affluent suburb. Phones are omnipresent. In the 12 years since I began here, I have seen phones become more of a distraction and students noticeably less engaged. Post COVID, “withdrawn” is probably more accurate than “less engaged.” Kids now genuinely struggle with how to speak to each other about what they are learning. Student discourse is at an all-time low. They come in, open a laptop, set their phone beside it, and burn through whatever work has been assigned for the day.

As a teacher in 2023, I am by no means a Luddite about smartphones or social media. I am not a stickler about seeing them out in my room. I allow students to listen to music as they write. If they need to look something up, I encourage it. For the first time in my career, I feel that leniency needs to change, that schools need to adopt more restrictive measures, not only due to the rise in mental health concerns, but in the need to learn to interact with the world without a barrier, without the constant allure of their life online.

My students are not shocked or surprised by adults’ ever-growing concern over social media. They do not roll their eyes when anxiety, depression, and teen suicide are mentioned in the same breath as smartphones, Instagram, and TikTok. My kids are not using social media in blissful ignorance of its harms; they are using it in spite of those realities because it governs their relationship to the world and to each other. As such, these students still advocate for the necessity of social media and smartphones in their lives.

They recount opportunities for spontaneous discovery. They argue the need for communication with their parents, siblings, teammates, and beyond, and say the fear of a school shooting makes this need feel urgent. They are passionate about the role social media plays for students of marginalized identities who often find community online when they do not find it at school, at home, or in the neighborhood. Simply put, these kids appreciate the complexity of the challenges social media and smartphones present.

What they do not know how to do is stop using them, or alter, fundamentally, how they use them. Many say they wish they hadn’t had access to them before high school. Nearly half of the girls in one class wrote that in middle school, access to a smart phone sent them into a depression and that arguments about phone use at home created unhealthy dynamics between them and their parents. Each of these students lamented their parents’ decision in allowing them to have social media access before high school. Girls who fought their parents for a phone for years before they turned 15 reported appreciating that their parents had made that decision, even if it was hard at the time.

Maybe I am just getting older. Less prone to shrug my shoulders at a seemingly unfixable problem. Less worried about being what I am: the adult in the room. But when young people praise parents for making hard and unpopular decisions, or criticize them for making ones that unintentionally caused harm, we should listen. If schools became one place in their lives where the frenetic online anxiety couldn’t supersede the lived moment, I can’t help but wonder if these kids might not find that a relief. Even a gift.

Tanner was given a smartphone at 13, and writes:

Prior to that, I wrote often and loved creating stories. As soon as I could access social media and the internet from the palm of my hand, I stopped writing. It seemed so laborious and unsatisfying compared to the instant gratification and stimuli available on my phone. Now, in my late 20s, I've finally curbed my smartphone use and have started writing again. But I will always regret the decade I spent glued to my phone instead of creating.

One of my biggest fears with smartphones is that they are stifling a generation of writers, musicians, philosophers, artists, scientists, inventors, and all sorts of other creative professionals. Creativity comes from moments of boredom and idleness. Smartphones eliminate so many of these moments. Creativity also requires an open, curious, inquisitive mind. I think young people will struggle to develop such a mind when using smartphones to constantly consume vapid, worthless content that usually lacks artistic merit.

B., an administrator at an international school in South Korea, has noticed “a troubling phenomenon”:

Every year, more and more students (even responsible, high-performing ones) do not know how to navigate basic social situations. I will prompt students to do a simple task (e.g. “please get out a pen or pencil”), and a substantial portion will simply stare at me, as if I said nothing. This is not defiance, at least not in a traditional sense. It’s more like a catatonic response induced, I believe, by being unfamiliar with or even overwhelmed by real-world interactions. The same students will be upbeat and engaged, and show dynamic facial expressions, the second they’re permitted to look at their phones.

My school has an extensive outdoor-education program. All students go on multiday outdoor trips, and they cannot bring phones with them at all. For the first five or six hours, many of the kids are miserable. But eventually, something flips. When truly separated from their phones, the kids begin to talk to each other, play games, and engage even with the teachers. There is still evidence of social handicap during these interactions, but the difference is remarkable. I find hope that even the heavily phone-addicted teenagers of Korea can show signs of basic sociability with a short-term separation from their phones. The lesson I learn from this: If a few days away from smartphones can make unsociable teens interact with a semblance of humanity, responsible parents should give their children a childhood free from the devices entirely.

Robert recently began teaching at a public school in North Carolina: He writes:

My first day, I told another science teacher that I had bought a storage rack for the students to deposit their phones into before entering the classroom. She was surprised and strongly urged me to reconsider, telling me that this would be like “cutting off their arms.” Although I found her analogy disturbing, I had no experience teaching high school and reluctantly took her advice. This was by far the worst teaching decision I made.

I became a cellphone cop. I would make the first announcement to put their phones away at the beginning of every class and then proceed to spend the next 90 minutes trying to enforce it. I caught them cradling their phones in their laps, holding them under their desks, using them to cheat on tests and quizzes, and leaving them in their backpacks but listening to them through their AirPods. One of the projects we did was to analyze the impact of the time they spent on their phones. The average daily screen time for students in my classes for the month of April was nine and a half hours with a mean of 285 pickups.

Olive graduated from high school last year. She writes:

I only got a smartphone partially through my junior year, while many of my friends had them since middle school. In many ways, this was rather inconvenient. My parents ended up with many of my friends’ phone numbers saved because of how often I had to borrow their phones, and I even had to ask my school’s crossing guard for her phone at times. I would say that it was overall a positive thing, though. I saw how much other students were distracted by their phones, in and out of class, despite them being “banned” during instruction. Despite how educationally detrimental smartphones were, the biggest effect was actually a social one. In many in-person events, those around me having a phone left me sometimes isolated, and it still hurts to be with friends only to see them using TikTok instead of actually talking. It feels like the limited time I get to spend with my friends is often stolen away by our technology, and it’s not been good for me.

There is an alternative perspective, though: that having a computer capable of connecting me to my friends while at home has actually helped tremendously. The only reason I’m as close as I am with many of my friends, and even my girlfriend, is the fact that we’ve been able to communicate while apart. Although this has sometimes meant replacing in-person quality time with digital communication, it has undoubtedly helped me become more social and prevented me from staying as shy of a bookworm as I was before I downloaded apps like Discord to talk to my friends. Because of these mixed factors, I’d say that “dumb” phones with a more advanced at-home alternative are the way to go, to allow for communication with parents while away, and with friends while at home.

Kerry was a teacher for almost 40 years.  She writes:

The damage smartphones do to concentration isn’t limited to children; I worked in a school where parents participated in the classrooms, and toward the end of my career, we struggled to keep the adults off their phones too! The damage to concentration is serious, but the damage to connection is far worse. People who are staring at their phones have lost the ability to be present in a room—or in nature—in a very real sense.

Get Discount