Student Smartphone Usage – Are Adults Overreacting Again?

In the 1950s, young people rejected obedience and compliance and began to rebel against their parents. Adolescents adopted a different set of norms, which included new tastes in clothing, hair, and music. 

Adults were worried. 

Parents at this time believed that appearance was an essential element of success in the modern workplace. In the article A Historical Perspective On Adolescent Behaviors And Twentieth Century Parenting Paradigms, Donah Freeman and Raychelle Harper wrote that business and government organizations in the postwar era had grown large and complex, “requiring workers who understood the nuances of interpersonal relationships” and were “trained to play the game and to know their boundaries.” Workers who demonstrated too much individuality and imagination, Freeman and Harper warned, “could cause the whole complex machine to grind to a halt.”

Well, the hair was grown out, music and clothing changed, and the machine did not grind to a halt. In fact, the creative thinking that new hair and clothing styles represented went from being considered disruptive to being highly desirable. 

Today, adults are demonstrating a similar level of concern for young people. This time it isn’t about hairstyles or music (although I think some choices by the young are a little questionable!). Today the focus of adult concern is on smartphone usage. 

On a recent search on Edutopia’s website I found 614 articles about screen time concerns and 285 about social media impact. 

Adults are worried. 

Too much screen time, Google cautions, can result in weight gain, depression, anxiety, and lower academic achievement. The consequences of too much time on social media, the web warns, include sleep disruption, fear of missing out, bullying, as well as more depression and anxiety. 

To address this issue, the adults who run schools responded by banning smartphones. A September 2022 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that 77% of schools in the United States have implemented smartphone “bans of some kind”.  

Adults genuinely believe that our concerns about smartphones are real and have dire consequences for society. 

But are these concerns real? 

Or, are we simply reacting like the parents of the 1950s?

Adults in the 1950s feared that changes in appearance and attitude among young people would make them incompatible with the complexities of the modern workplace. But, in the end, the workplace, and society, simply adjusted to the changes. 

This adjustment was not a new phenomenon. Society has often had to evolve when it comes to new ideas and new technology. For instance, our concerns about smartphone use eerily mirrors concerns that adults in the past had about young people reading books.  

Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novel Madame Bovary, according to literature professor Margaret Cohen in a 2014 New York Times article When Novels Were Bad For You, was a warning about how young women were growing “susceptible to the fantasies they find in novels and the seductions of reading”.

In 1790, an American clergyman named Enos Hitchcock warned his fellow citizens about the dangers of reading, saying that easy access to novels “poisoned the mind and corrupted the morals of many a promising youth”. 

Once again, society adjusted and reading switched from being considered dangerous to being essential. 

Excessive reading wasn’t the only area of concern of our ancestors. A 2013 article on entitled 14 Historical Complaints About Young People Ruining Everything presents a list of the potential dangers of new fangled fads such as young people dancing the waltz, playing chess, and using an umbrella.  

I can remember my own parents getting freaked out in the 1980s about heavy metal music and video games. 

So, it’s clear that adults can sometimes overreact to new ideas and technology. The ongoing debate about smartphones may be the latest example of such overreacting. Having said that, some of the concerns about the smartphone are real. Yes, there is an impact on time management, mental health, and academic performance. But, is there anything actually good about smartphone usage? 

What are we – the anxious adults of today – not seeing here?

When I spoke to my students recently about our school’s new smartphone ban, the students talked about how the phone was essential to connecting with their friends. This is particularly important in a post-COVID world. My students told me that since 2020 their parents were not comfortable with their children meeting friends at the mall or other public locations. Parents, my students complained, even had concerns about their children going to the homes of their classmates and friends. “What else are we supposed to do?” one student asked sarcastically. 

My students also talked about how their phones can build connections in the sense that they use them to share jokes, memes, and culturally significant events/ideas. This reminded me of the old 80s and 90s concept of ‘water cooler shows’ – television shows that people would watch and then discuss with their colleagues at work the next day as they stood together around the water cooler. Is sharing a TikTok video today any different than our generation talking about last night’s Seinfeld episode?

Okay, but are there any actual benefits to smartphone usage? Neuroscientist Mayanne Wolf, in the NYT article When Novels Were Bad For You, said that frequent internet use results in reading skills focused on “skimming, picking out key words, organizing my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed”. In an age when information no longer arrives in small, digestible chunks, but as an overwhelming tsunami, perhaps a new kind of reading is an important adaptation. 

Smartphone usage is a complex issue. And I am not pretending that I have all the answers.   But, when I mull over how best to address the concerns, I keep thinking of that old adage about our job as teachers is to prepare students for their future, not our past. The world is evolving rapidly and the adults of today are feeling more and more adrift as new ideas and technology reshape the future we expected and are attempting to prepare our students for. Artificial intelligence is writing our students’ essays. Grammarly is fixing their grammar. Shared Google Docs are redefining collaboration. And, smartphones are reimagining engagement. 

Things have definitely changed. But are they really all that different? Sinister social media websites are accused of hiring psychologists to create their highly addictive products. Then I remember the cliffhanger and how novels and movies have used this concept for years to keep their audiences dangling along. 

Perhaps it’s time that the anxious adults stepped aside and let cooler, and younger, heads prevail. 

Ed X!


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