Monday, June 24, 2024
Smartphone news

The Battle Over Smartphones at School


Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

Should parents refuse to give children smartphones before high school? All opinions are welcome. Especially encouraged are perspectives from parents, teachers, and relatively young people.

Send your responses to conor@theatlantic.com.


Conversations of Note

The Case Against Phones at School

In The Atlantic, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that the case for making schools a phone-free zone has gotten stronger in the past few years:

As my research assistant, Zach Rausch, and I have documented at my Substack, After Babel, evidence of an international epidemic of mental illness, which started around 2012, has continued to accumulate. So, too, has evidence that it was caused in part by social media and the sudden move to smartphones in the early 2010s. Many parents now see the addiction and distraction these devices cause in their children; most of us have heard harrowing stories of self-harming behavior and suicide attempts among our friends’ children. Two weeks ago, the United States surgeon general issued an advisory warning that social media can carry “a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”

We now also have more precedents: many more examples of schools that have gone entirely phone-free during the school day. So the time is right for parents and educators to ask: Should we make the school day phone-free? Would that reduce rates of depression, anxiety, and self-harm? Would it improve educational outcomes? I believe that the answer to all of these questions is yes.

He makes the rest of his case here.

There’s a Market for That

Olivia Reingold highlights a “dumbphones” entrepreneur in The Free Press:

In 2018, Lance Black, a Utah father of six, became a founder and investor in Gabb Wireless—a company making internet-free smartphones. The devices, which start at $150, are aimed at kids 5 to 15 and loaded only with the essentials: features for texting, calling, and a GPS tracker for parents …

“It has a touchscreen, and you can call and text, so kids aren’t embarrassed to pull it out,” Black tells me, adding that it runs on an Android-based operating system. Since Gabb launched in 2019, Black said the company has raised about $42 million in funding. While he won’t reveal specific sales, he said every year has significantly outpaced the previous year, adding, “We have hundreds of thousands of customers across the United States.”

Tim Carney explains, in Reingold’s Free Press story, that he doesn’t think kids should have smartphones until they’re 18. In the Washington Examiner, he goes on to highlight how smartphones present an obstacle to the society he wants:

Your Android or iPhone is required to participate in much of public life these days, and the phone-free are finding themselves unwelcome in more and more places. The National Zoo in Washington, which is free to visit, started requiring tickets as a crowd-control measure during COVID-19 and continues to require them. Of course, the tickets are requested and issued over the internet, typically for smartphones. The zoo maintained this policy into 2023, which Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) pointed out “deters both visits from those without access to a smartphone or the internet and spontaneous visits.”

Nationals Park also issues digital tickets that you need to display on your smartphone in order to enter. The team has no Will Call window, notes that “tickets purchased directly from the Nationals must be presented within the MLB Ballpark app,” and explains that “to improve security and reduce the risk of ticket fraud, print-at-home tickets in any form are no longer accepted for entry.”  

So what are children to do?

Many teenagers do not have smartphones, and frankly, they shouldn’t. Smartphones are addictive to everyone, and they are especially harmful to children. A group of smartphone-less 14-year-olds used to be able to ride the Metro, buy tickets with their own cash, and then use whatever money was left over to buy peanuts and a hot dog.

Now the stadium has no real ticket window, and if you have cash, I’m told that “you can pay for a bar code to scan at the concession stands,” one concessionaire told me. Of course, you can’t cash out anything left on that prepaid bar code at the end of the game. So what are we to think of places such as the National Zoo and Nationals Park? Are they happy to be forcing children onto smartphones? Or do they just forget that children exist?

A Warning About Tech Panics

In an article for Reason, Robby Soave argued back in 2021 that we ought to be on guard against exaggerated fears when evaluating new technology, because so many earlier tech panics failed the test of time. He explained:

In 2020 … Pope Francis published an encyclical warning about the dangers of screen addiction. “Digital media can also expose people to the risk of addiction, isolation and a gradual loss of contact with concrete reality, blocking the development of authentic interpersonal relationships,” he wrote. But the more things change, the more they stay the same: In 1956, Pope Pius XII had warned that certain books emphasizing vice have an effect on readers that “totally paralyzes higher faculties and produces a permanent disorder, an artificial need of passionate character that at times reaches a real aberration.”

In 1936, the government of St. Louis, Missouri, tried to ban car radios because a “determined movement” had become convinced that the radio distracted drivers and caused car accidents. The car radio was widely feared by newspapers, which were competitors and had every incentive to sensationalize the product’s dangers. The Charlotte News fretted in 1926 that radio was “keeping children and their parents up late nights, wearing down their vitality for lack of sleep and making laggards out of them at school.” In his 1963 book, Passion and Social Constraint, the Dutch-American sociologist Ernest van den Haag lamented that the portable radio “is taken everywhere—from seashore to mountaintop—and everywhere it isolates the bearer from his surroundings” and that mass media alienate us “from each other, from reality, and from ourselves.”

The Decline of Morality Is an Illusion

That’s the argument of this Nature paper by Adam M. Mastroianni and Daniel T. Gilbert. From the abstract:

We show that people in at least 60 nations around the world believe that morality is declining, that they have believed this for at least 70 years and that they attribute this decline both to the decreasing morality of individuals as they age and to the decreasing morality of successive generations. Next, we show that people’s reports of the morality of their contemporaries have not declined over time, suggesting that the perception of moral decline is an illusion. Finally, we show how a simple mechanism based on two well-established psychological phenomena (biased exposure to information and biased memory for information) can produce an illusion of moral decline, and we report studies that confirm two of its predictions about the circumstances under which the perception of moral decline is attenuated, eliminated or reversed (that is, when respondents are asked about the morality of people they know well or people who lived before the respondent was born). Together, our studies show that the perception of moral decline is pervasive, perdurable, unfounded and easily produced.


Provocation of the Week

As depressed as it makes me about the state of the Republican Party and America’s ability to sustain the republic, I’m not sure that the political scientist Richard Hanania is wrong when he argues that Donald Trump supporters “love the stupidity, obnoxiousness, vulgarity, and simian chest-beating” the former president has to offer—and that, rather than run a normal race against Trump, Ron DeSantis should challenge him to a fight:

DeSantis’ best shot is trying to emphasize that Trump is physically weak and he no longer intimidates others in the party. You can’t do this with words alone. DeSantis can call him fat, and Trump can reply everyone is saying that I’m in the best shape of any man who’s ever lived, and the voters will eat it up. The Florida governor needs a way to clearly highlight that he’s younger, stronger, and more physically courageous. DeSantis should therefore challenge Trump to a boxing match. Trump will almost certainly refuse, at which point he can say that this shows what a coward the former president is. Or, DeSantis could say that, on further reflection, maybe it wasn’t fair to challenge an 85 year-old man (yes, lie and exaggerate, Republican voters love that too), and he understands that his opponent is too feeble at this point in his life to get into the arena.

DeSantis shouldn’t do this out of the blue. He could start by trying to bait Trump into saying something particularly nasty about him, or preferably his wife or kids. Then he can play the role of the justifiably angry patriarch.

Every time Trump launches a personal attack, DeSantis can reply by saying that his opponent is a pathetic coward, and if he has a problem with him he’s already made clear that they can settle their differences like men. If he’s not willing to do that, then we can stick to the issues, at which point DeSantis can go on about whatever he did in Florida. At the very least, a challenge to fight will eat up all the energy and make sure no other candidate gets any attention, as one of the main things DeSantis needs to do is make the primary into a two-man race.

Right now, the DeSantis strategy is to try to get the Republican voter to ask questions like “who is more electable?” or “who has shown more focus in fighting woke?” Those are exciting questions to conservative intellectuals but way too boring for the Republican masses. They will never tell a pollster this, but they resent anyone trying to make them think too hard, which is part of the reason they hate liberals in the first place. These people love sports, and would be much more partial to DeSantis if thanks to him they got to discuss questions like “can Trump’s height and reach overcome DeSantis’ speed and stamina?” If Trump refuses to do it, then he’s suddenly become the one robbing them of a chance to be entertained, which is what they want more than anything else.

His insults and rants will start to look boring in comparison.


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