Nowhere is the generation gap as apparent as when people of different ages start talking about their time at school. A baby boomer will recount wholesome remembrances at a small public high school so many decades ago, utterly unaware that his school has become an expanding compound covered with graffiti, besieged by portables, and populated with delinquents. Even if someone informs him of this, he will often still choose his memory over the current reality and ignore the problems educators face today.
In more than a few ways, teachers of decades past had a much easier time than teachers today: their standardized tests were easier (or nonexistent); their class sizes were smaller; their students came from stable homes with more supportive parents; and their administrators were friendlier and more trusting. Ideally, older teachers would acknowledge these advantages and support younger teachers, but instead most never bother to update their ideas of the classroom and give vapid advice on how to reform education.
For an accurate description of today’s common problems, read Jeremy S. Adams’s article, “10 Things Teachers Did Not Have to Deal With 10 Years Ago.” Adams mentions ineffective disciplinary programs, emotionally troubled students, drug abuse, student entitlement, and other things that, while not necessarily new, seem particularly bad nowadays.
One item on his list, however, dwarfs all the others in negative effects on students in the past decade: smartphones. One can argue that the other nine problems derive from this one. To his credit, Adams devotes another whole article to smartphones for this very reason. Almost all students today own a smartphone and spend the majority of their waking life on it.
This leaves many parents and teachers to decide whether they want to fight this trend or work with it. At the moment, most have opted for the latter approach, mainly because it is easier but also because they naively believe smartphones can be educational if used properly.
Neither Extreme Is That Helpful Here
Throwing common sense to the wind and ignoring all contrary evidence, school leaders have recklessly welcomed the invasion of smartphones and tablets. They have told teachers to “go paperless,” make interactive online classrooms, liven up their classroom with the district’s cool new apps, and recast their students’ excessive phone use as something different, not distracting.
Although ten years of the resulting dysfunction has helped their argument, those who oppose smartphones often look like unreasonable Luddites who rest their claims on unrealistic extremes rather than observable examples. In their eagerness to spread alarm, they insist smartphones will turn children into illiterate zombies invariably addicted to pornography, violence, and leftist demagoguery. Adding hypocrisy to their kookiness, nearly all these opponents of technology own smartphones (or have even invented them) and indulge in the same behavior as most young people.
Nevertheless, those who worry about smartphones’ effects on young people are ultimately right, while those who think today’s children are “digital natives” better equipped to deal with the current world than their elders are horribly wrong. Similar to other vices, the consequences of smartphones work in a variety of ways and often take time to manifest. Smartphones do not turn people into zombies—at least, not immediately—but they can effectively ruin the lives of the students most at risk of dropping out while significantly inhibiting high achievers’ wellbeing.
How Smartphones Hurt At-Risk Kids
As one might expect, kids with the most difficulties in life have serious addictions to their phones. Coping with neglect at home and indifference at school, they lose themselves in the luminous fantasy world of their phone. Due to their phone addiction, these kids perpetually need remediation.
The teachers tasked with pulling these students out of their rut have few options. They can try to teach these students in earnest and confront their addiction and face the collective wrath of withdrawal, all for little compensation in the way of praise or pay. Or they can keep the students sedated on their phones, grant them frequent “mental breaks” to vegetate on their screens, and pretend this benefits them somehow.
This is how the proliferation of smartphones has widened an already large knowledge gap between the high achievers and low achievers. Those at the bottom have no means of moving up, so they stay where they are, failing state test after state test (yet mysteriously passing most of their classes and graduating), contented by their phones and utterly unprepared for life after school.
Smartphones Hurt High Achievers, Too
That does not mean kids at the top are unaffected by the smartphone. True, they do not fall into obvious addictions that reduce them to compulsive users, but they do lose something about themselves. Smartphone use empties out their character, making them incurably shallow human beings: they have much less personality, zero regard for academic honesty, and see little point in actual thought.
Before smartphones, high achievers had different interests, strong friendships, and life goals. With smartphones, their interests have diminished, their friendships have weakened into acquaintanceships, and their life goals have flattened into career goals.
Like the benighted drones staring at the numbers of a slot machine, they stare at their grades online, eagerly waiting for the number to go up. They check this like the average millennial checks her Instagram or Gen Xer checks his Facebook. That number subordinates all other concerns and practically dictates all that these students do: if it helps their grade, they will do it; if it does not, they will ignore it.
No one can really fault them since they look like fine students on paper, but, depending on the quality of their education, they may be absolute dunces in person. While grade-grubbing existed in the past, the smartphone and online report cards have made it a peculiarly popular obsession.
Since friendships and hobbies do not really help one’s grade or provide immediate gratification, they tend to fall by the wayside. With social media conjuring the illusion of friends and video games conjuring the illusion of accomplishment, high achievers often become antisocial bores with few opinions on anything besides themselves.
Some social scientists take this general indifference as evidence that iGens are more libertarian or less progressive, but the truth is that they are simply ignorant and mostly see politics and religion as a meaningless distractions from their grades, future careers, and themselves, which are all that matter.
What’s a Teacher to Do?
Teachers who work with these students struggle most with rampant cheating. Smartphones have ushered in a veritable renaissance of academic dishonesty. They help students look up answers and copy them, plagiarize essays or outsource writing essays altogether, read book summaries, and take pictures of tests to share with classmates. None of them consider this dishonest because it is so easy.
Many students also see no value in the work they do, or in anything else for that matter, which is why they choose to see outright cheating as simply a more efficient means of learning. Questions of meaning, morality, or personal fulfillment are foreign concepts to the student who finds a continuous source of answers and amusement from his phone. To him, all schoolwork is busy work, and the teacher who tries to insist otherwise is an insufferable prig.
Perhaps students in past decades sought relevance and meaning in their learning. Most students today, even the most motivated ones, seek ease and mindlessness in their classes. Where does this desire come from, if not from the smartphone that provides these very things every minute of the day?
With frightful speed, the spread of smartphones has changed the work of teachers beyond recognition. In addition to teaching and motivating students, they now have to work around this problem somehow.
Although smartphones have largely mollified students’ destructive energy—a great benefit for educators wanting order above all else—they have also smothered their creative energy and shaved off their humanity. Unfortunately, teachers have scarce means of fighting this, so they often end up joining their kids and accept a classroom emptied of depth and substance and instead filled with novelty and instant feedback.
As with anything else, the only way to improve this problem is admit that it truly is one. Parents would have to admit that they made a mistake in giving their children smartphones. Educators would have to admit that they made a mistake in permitting students to use smartphones. And all adults would have to admit that they spend way too much time on their smartphones also, and are all the worse for it.
For this kind of collective change of heart to happen, individuals who have experienced this smartphone invasion firsthand, teachers who teach in today’s classrooms, will have to lead—and without the aid of smartphones.