Key Research

“The Case for Phone-Free Schools,” by Jonathan Haidt

Key Takeaways:

  • Since 2012, the smartphone has dramatically emerged in prevalence, creating conditions for students to be “permanently distracted and congenitally distractible.”
  • School culture has changed as a result of the smartphone, resulting in a global increase in loneliness at school since 2012.
  • Now is the time to make the school day phone-free in order to improve educational outcomes and reduce rates of depression, anxiety, and self-harm.
  • The most common measures taken to restrict phones in school are inadequate; school leaders should consider locked pouches or phone lockers as the only presently viable solutions to this problem.

LiveMore ScreenLess’ Summary

In his recent article for The Atlantic, Jonathan Haidt reflects on the international epidemic of mental illness and some of the purported underlying causes (the emerging prevalence of smartphones and social media around the year 2012), making a sweeping case for in-school phone restrictions.

Phones in school present many harms for young people. Developmentally speaking, the still-maturing prefrontal cortex renders young people especially vulnerable to sustained changes in the brain’s reward system, shifting their general mood toward irritability and anxiety when separated from their phones, and reducing their ability to focus. 

The social experience of adolescents is also highly vulnerable to the harms of phones. Many of us are familiar with phubbing (a contraction of “phone snubbing”), a phenomenon in which conversation is interrupted by one person looking at their phone. “Once some students start phubbing others,” Haidt writes, “then the others feel pressure to pull out their own phones, and in a flash, the culture of the entire school has changed.” Haidt points to research suggesting that individuals who are addicted to their phones tend to be most guilty of phubbing, seemingly explaining why the heaviest phone and/or social media users tend to be the most depressed and lonely.

While a 2020 report indicated that cell phone restrictions were widespread, in 77% of U.S. schools, this figure includes “any school that tells students they should not use their phones while in class—unless the use is related to class.” Haidt indicates that this standard presents serious shortcomings, and calls on school leaders to raise the bar, calling attention to the disparities that exist between different models of phone restriction:

  1. Allowing phones for “class-related” purposes will inevitably result in distractibility and non-class related phone use, and is thus useless.
  2. Allowing students to hold onto their phones if they are stowed away within backpacks or their pockets will likely lead to the same scenario.
  3. The use of phone caddies may be a successful tactic during class time,  but tends to lead to even more excessive phone usage in between classes, resulting in greater harm to the social experience of students.
  4. Lockable magnetic pouches, such as those produced by Yondr, provide a viable phone restriction solution. Some reports have emerged of students tampering with these pouches to bypass their intended purpose, but the design is reportedly improving. 
  5. Phone lockers, while logistically challenging, present the most successful model for restricting phones at school, physically separating students from their phones from the beginning to the end of the school day.

Haidt speaks directly to parents and families, alluding to the benefits of having 6 or 7 hours per day free of communication with parents. He also discourages smartphones for children as their first phone, highlighting alternatives suggested by Wait Until 8th (however, Haidt is adamant that no child should have a smartphone until at least 9th grade). For anyone concerned that their child will be the “only one” without a smartphone, Haidt recommends that parents coordinate with parents of their children’s friends to make smartphone restriction easier for all families.

Topics: Attention , Device Use Policy , Loneliness