Many of today’s children are ignorant, sad, and set up for failure. They lack the knowledge and skills to perform basic tasks. They are lonely and suffer from depression and anxiety. Also, as Mark Bauerlein explains in his book “The Dumbest Generation Grows Up,” they are incredibly immature.
The reasons for this are not a mystery. One top answer is actually incredibly simple: screens. Instead of learning about their world and participating in it, the majority of young people are glued to their devices, playing video games, scrolling through social media, and streaming videos.
This past year, American teens and pre-teens spent an average of nine hours per day in front of a screen. That means they spend almost twice as much waking life looking at illuminated pixels than they do at physical objects and people.
As I’ve argued before, tablets and smartphones have radically transformed the school experience from what it used to be. Those who taught before screens wouldn’t even recognize today’s classrooms, and those who taught afterward wouldn’t even believe what students of the past were capable of without the help of technology.
Screens Crept In and Now They’re Everywhere
As an older millennial born in the ‘80s, I witnessed the transition. I began teaching a few years before smartphones and tablets became popular and observed the gradually increasing effects they’ve made over the years.
At first, schools had strict policies about phones, confiscating them on sight and charging students a hefty fee and a few days of detention to recover it. Over the years, however, administrators relaxed these rules, instituting school-wide BYOT and encouraging teachers to incorporate more technology into instruction and somehow channel their students’ screen addiction towards educational ends.
These days, nearly all the students have smartphones and use them obsessively. The damage done is unmistakable: they have lost the ability to focus; they can’t remember anything (except to check their smartphone every other second); they lack imagination and depend heavily on sound and visuals, and they are bored by everything.
Not only do the screens affect students academically, but also socially. Many students don’t talk anymore, and they will go through the whole school year without making friends. Those free moments of the day where kids would socialize (the one great virtue of formal education) are now spent on the screen.
It makes sense, then, that in my experience, there’s a strong correlation between students’ academic performance and the time they spend on their phones. My top students use their smartphones like tools (or to challenge me at Wordle), not as crutches. And most of them have hobbies, play sports, and enjoy fulfilling relationships. They are well-adjusted and mature, everything one would want in a young adult.
Without exception, the students who struggle are all addicted to screens. They can’t pay attention or retain any information, and they are often restless even when they have their phones. Many have to repeat classes and regularly retake state standardized tests. Remediating them is difficult because they progress so slowly, forever bewitched by their screens.
The Top Reason for Screens Is Making Adults More Comfortable
Seeing all this and feeling its consequences, why do people continue to push for more technology if it does so much harm? There are reasons for this, just not very good ones.
For educators, technology seems to promise an easy fix for all problems. Once students have a device with access to the internet, they will be instantly engaged, informed, and above all pacified — or so the thinking goes. In some cases, this actually does happen — until the novelty wears off. In most cases, though, school districts squander millions of dollars on apps and additional devices that no one bothers to use.
In the case of parents pushing technology, the reasoning is similar. Parents give their kids an iPad or smartphone in the hopes it will settle them down, keep them happy, and maybe teach them something. And while this gives parents peace and quiet in the short term, it makes the kids addicts in the long term. There’s also the serious problem of what the kids are actually doing on their screens — much of which is not age-appropriate.
Added to this temptation to keep kids quiet is the constant peer pressure. Most parents know getting their kids hooked to screens is bad, but when they see everyone else doing it, these concerns go out the window. Rather, they would be weird and paranoid not to give their kids ample screen time. They might fall behind.
Thus, because of the sheer ubiquity and convenience of screens, it becomes a Herculean effort to eliminate them in any meaningful way. Nevertheless, it’s possible and most certainly worth it.
Screen-Free Kids are Happy Kids
For a few years now, my wife and I have held strong with our three toddlers, keeping our house screen-free. On one hand, this means we have to actively monitor and supervise them from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed, which can be exhausting and often overwhelming. On the other hand, our children are much more creative, energetic, and mature than most kids their age. More importantly, they are happier and we have a close relationship with them.
To maintain a screen-free environment, we’ve also opted to send our children to a classical charter school that prohibits smartphones and tablets. Our eldest will enter kindergarten this fall. While she could have attended highly rated public schools in our area, I’ve worked long enough as an educator to see how even the best education is undermined by a lax technology policy.
As for the possibility of making non-classical schools screen-free, this will take a tremendous strength of will from the whole school community, especially after two years of Covid craziness. Computers and the internet are embedded in nearly every aspect of public education now, and the large majority of students are addicted to their devices.
It’s true that on most campuses, at least here in Texas, teachers can take up phones and enforce some kind of policy to moderate usage. But unless there’s a uniform campus-wide policy, any teacher who seriously tries to ban the use of phones during class will quickly see how futile it is— believe me, I’ve tried. Students and their parents will push back and complain loudly, treating smartphones as an inviolable human right.
This is why countries like France have banned smartphones from public schools altogether, or why fancy prep schools in Silicon Valley like the Waldorf Academy do the same. Just as there are rules against skipping class and vaping in the bathrooms, there should be rules against using a phone in class. It can’t blithely be treated as a teacher’s preference, or else nothing will happen.
For those truly invested in reforming education, doing something about the screens needs to take priority. Otherwise, the decline we keep seeing in our schools will continue, and we really will have a whole generation of worthless adults hopelessly addicted to their screens and unable to function. If you thought we millennials were bad, just wait for what’s to come.