Opinion: Hey parents, don’t text your kids at school

Opinion: Hey parents, don’t text your kids at school
  • PublishedMarch 24, 2024

Hey, parents, leave your kids alone.

That’s increasingly the message from educatorstherapists, child development experts and even college professors and administrators who say that overly-involved parents are too technologically tethered to their kids and, as a result, are stymying their children’s educational potential and failing to launch independent adults into the world.

In schools, kids are attached to their phones to the detriment of their attention and their education – but some students and their parents argue that they need to be constantly available for parental contact. Teachers report that parents argue with them about grades, call their children in class, expect constant text message updates and even monitor their children’s screens or listen in on lessons when those children are in class.

Of course, most parents want what’s best for their kids. But what feels best to soothe immediate anxieties is not necessarily actually best for a child’s development and wellbeing.

According to Pew, 95% of US teens can access a smartphone. And teens have smartphone access at shockingly young ages, with 91%  of 13-and 14-year-olds reporting they have access.

There is a growing body of research on the many, many problems caused by excessive smartphone use among young people and adults alike ­— and on the many, many downsides of having smartphones in the classroom. Phones may affect our cognition, increase our anxieties and shorten our attention spans. Phones are a distraction, and when students have them in class, those students are distracted – one study conducted by UNESCO across 14 countries  found that it takes a student an average of 20 minutes to refocus after receiving a text message. Many adults with smartphones can probably relate to how difficult it is to ignore the ping of a text or the light-up of a push alert, and we’re people with fully-developed brains and much more sophisticated abilities to delay gratification and make rational decisions.

Smartphones and the apps on them were designed by some of the smartest people in the world to capture, maintain and re-capture our attention. Of course, that works on kids, too, perhaps even more effectively than it works on adults. And, of course, when a child’s attention is on his or her phone, it’s not on a teacher or material in the classroom.

Nor is that attention directed to other kids. Since smartphones became ubiquitous in the United States, in-person socializing has taken a steep nosedive. That may not be solely attributable to smartphone use, but many experts point to screens as a leading reason for why young people (and many other Americans) have fewer friends and spend far less time hanging out than they used to. And it’s not actually because teens are being crushed with homework or after-school activities; hours spent on homework are down while hours spent on extracurriculars have remained stable, psychology professor Jean Twenge told Derek Thompson of the Atlantic. According to a report from the Aspen Institute, fewer teens are playing sports. “If anything, teens today have more leisure time than they used to,” Twenge said. “They just choose to spend it on their phones.”

Many parents say that screentime and what their kids do on their phones are a concern and affluent parents seem to be increasingly getting their kids off of screens at home and in the classroom (it seems particularly telling that many Silicon Valley parents who work in tech are going out of their way to keep their own children from using it). But the day-to-day need to be in regular communication with one’s children seems, for many parents, to outweigh what we do or should intellectually understand about phone usage.

And it does seem that the driving force behind what so many teachers are identifying isn’t addictive technology itself, but anxieties enabled and perhaps heightened by those technologies. There is the obvious threat of school shootings, which is surely one reason why parents may want their children to have phones on them. There seems to be a pervasive sense that one’s children may be getting left behind and, in a highly unequal society, the stakes for education feel extremely high. Parents understandably want to make sure that their kids aren’t just learning, but are doing well and succeeding.

But there also seems to be a more general desire to be intimately involved in children’s lives – and a sense that one might be missing something important if one isn’t. And, of course, the more parents act this way, the more others may feel negligent or unconcerned if they aren’t involving themselves as heavily.

But the surveillance and micromanagement of children, including in the classroom, can send a message to kids that they are not capable of being independent people and are not capable of managing their own educations, conflicts and challenges. Part of the job of a parent is to equip children to go out in the world as independent, self-sufficient adults and that requires letting them experience hardship, pain, failure and disagreement. Parents can and should provide support and love, but not a willingness to jump in to solve every problem. Children who don’t develop these skills when they’re in their parents’ home may have a much harder time when they leave (which is perhaps why college professors and administrators also report similar issues with overly-involved parents).

Several parents told me that they also strive to stay connected to their kids in emergencies, while minimizing distractions at school. Michael Smith, a father of three in Brooklyn, wrote via email that while his oldest has a phone and his two youngest have Apple watches they could use to call in an emergency, “Their watches are locked down on ‘school time’ and me and their older brother are the only people they’re able to call/text,” he wrote.

Some parents also pointed out that phones can be helpful for kids with special needs. Kathleen Moran, who raised her now-adult sons in Virginia Beach, said that a phone was a lifesaver for her eldest, who has autism. It meant that when the bus driver dropped him in the wrong place or a scheduled pickup didn’t come, he was able to call for help. And people with disabilities face high rates of abuse, including sometimes from care takers and educators. “I never felt completely comfortable with my children, especially my child with autism, in the care of school personnel and we always had to have a system in place for this,” Moran wrote in an email. But, she added, “I specifically did not tell him to use his phone to call me because I knew that would get him in trouble.”

Beatrice Robbins, a Brooklyn mom of a seven-year-old second grader, said that her son has been asking for a phone since kindergarten, when some of his peers started getting them. She told him he could have one when he was 10 – a year that is quickly approaching. “I will probably keep the phone at home for 5th grade but, pending school policies, let him take it starting in middle school,” she wrote in an email, mostly because he will be taking public transport to school and will need to utilize the map and text his mom if the train is delayed. “I don’t want him to have a phone in the classroom because has no medical need and I know he won’t be able to resist playing on it,” she wrote. “But…ugh. This is the US. I want him to have a phone with him so he can call for help or text me something if some unmedicated, enraged psychopath storms in and starts shooting everyone. It’s impossible to think about but also impossible not to think about.”

Many parents, in other words, seem to want a reasonable balance: Kids who aren’t distracted in class, but have their phones in emergencies. Part of the job of a society is creating institutions, and especially schools, that prioritize learning for children, not catering to parental anxieties and desires above all. Some schools are banning phones; others are requiring those phones be put in a pouch during the school day that can be torn open in an emergency, which strikes me as a very good idea and an appropriate way to assuage parental concerns.

Social media platforms need to do their part in restricting access to their platforms for young kids. And school leadership need to stand up, even in the face of anxious or demanding parents. There should be robust education from the earliest grades on why parents should not be buying smartphones for their adolescents or young teens – the fewer young people have smartphones, the less pressure there is on kids and their parents to procure them. And there should simply be in-class no-phone rules, even if that makes parents upset or interrupts their ability to get a text response at any hour of the day.

Much of this, though, does come down to the decisions we all make as individuals. Many of us, I suspect, know we should spend less time attached to our screens. And many parents, I suspect, may be acting from a place of good intentions and do genuinely want to raise self-sufficient independent adults, but have a hard time in the day to day letting go of their most precious people. Just like young people are learning how to be students and people in the world, though, parents, too, should be learning to work through their own fears and give their kids more autonomy.


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