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Blubaugh: Cellphone ban should extend past school hours

Carroll County’s Board of Education spent a portion of its most recent meeting discussing a proposal for new regulations school system officials hope will cut down on classroom distractions caused by cellphones.

Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Steven Johnson, who led a presentation about the possible revisions, said, in part, that students are “not always great with the appropriate use of technology.”

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Few would argue with that. But what if even the appropriate use of smartphones is bad for kids?

The proposal is that elementary school students would keep their cellphones on silent and out of sight throughout the entire time they are in school. For middle and high school students, the phones would be stored and silenced in classrooms, media center, gymnasium, bathrooms and locker rooms.

The school system is soliciting public comment leading into next month’s Board meeting. Being more restrictive of cellphone use during school time is probably a good idea. The best idea, though, would be for parents to be more restrictive at all other times.

Parents should check out a book called “iGen” with the fantastic subtitle, “Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.”

The book is written by Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University. She coined the term “iGen” for those born after 1995, characterizing this group as the first generation to spend their entire adolescence in the age of the smartphone. She wrote her latest book after a survey of 11 million young people as well as numerous in-depth interviews.

She notes in it that this generation spends less time with their friends in person — thanks largely to smartphones — and theorizes that this is perhaps why they are experiencing unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

There has been a massive increase in anxiety disorders among young people which Twenge believes has led to the skyrocketing rates of teen depression and suicide. The dramatic statistical increases correspond exactly with smartphone use hitting critical mass. According to the Pew Research Center, smartphone ownership among U.S. teens rose from 37 percent in 2011 to 73 percent in 2015. According to iGen, social media grew to an activity about 82 percent of teens did every day during that time frame. Increasing screen time was the largest change in teens' lives between 2011 and 2015.

But it isn’t just the “inappropriate” going on during that screen time that’s an issue.

Cyberbullying is a colossal problem, of course, but so is the simple fact that teens are spending such an incredible amount of time focused on their phones. According to Common Sense Media, teens spend an average of nine hours a day online. As Twenge points out, this deprives teens of sleep and seeing friends in person, which are both beneficial to mental health.

In a blog she wrote, Twenge said she found that “social media use was significantly correlated with depression for girls, but not for boys.” Which makes sense because, as she wrote, “Developmentally, girls are more concerned with physical appearance and social popularity than boys are. Social media is a showcase of those issues, even quantifying them in numbers of likes and followers.” Self-harm tripled among girls over a six-year span.

Twenge’s research found that iGen teens, today’s teens, do fewer hours of homework than teens did in the 1980s, and the decline is largest among eighth-graders, the age group with the largest increase in self-harm. Further research she detailed in a paper for Clinical Psychological Science, showed teens who spend more time on homework are less likely to be depressed — as are those who spend a lot of time on sports.

The generation’s problems can’t be blamed solely on smartphones, of course. There are plenty of factors and parents — this columnist included — play a big role. As Twenge noted in a piece for Time, “iGen was raised in a highly individualistic culture favoring the self over the group; phrases such as ‘do what’s right for you’ and ‘believe in yourself and anything is possible’ echoed through their childhood.”

Yet it’s a generation not allowed to explore, not allowed to fail, not allowed much independence (often kept tethered to their parents by that smartphone). Because of those and other factors, Twenge says 18-year-olds look and act like 15-year-olds used to.

Cellphones are believed to be a distraction in school. When devices are required in the classroom, the school system is expected to provide them, so they aren’t an educational tool. As was pointed out during public comment, security is a serious issue. And the main reason most parents think their kids need them — constant communication — is actually holding their kids back.

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Fair enough. Does it maybe, then, make sense to simply ban all student use of smartphones in schools — and increase the amount of homework assigned — not just to prevent distractions but also to try to assist in improving a generation’s mental health?

And shouldn’t parents consider a similar ban at home?

Think about this. If every reference above to cellphone or smartphone and the potential associated dangers had instead said “Scary Drug X,” wouldn’t parents be demanding that politicians and police take the necessary steps to save this generation by ridding the country of such a dangerous thing?

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