Is the ‘screenager’ apocalypse upon us? How smartphones are making our youth stupid and grouchy. Here’s why you should fight back.

The Pitch

What if I told you I had a research based, data-driven educational “program” that could:

  1. Increase final exam scores by half a letter grade,
  2. Improve overall student learning by 20 percent,
  3. Boost creativity,
  4. Enhance student wellness by decreasing irritability, social anxiety, sleep problems, and attention issues, and
  5. Be effective for 95 percent of the high school students in your district?

Sounds too good to be true, right? But now you’re wondering how much would I charge for this miracle program? What kind of infrastructure upgrades would the building need? How much professional development would you have to sit through?

The answers in the order asked: Zero. None. This article.

3B7AD643EA80D18BAAC489392DD90EF0Rise of the Screenager

We live in the Age of the Smartphone, and it’s a strange world. One where the best anti-theft device for your car is a stick shift. A world where a fruit company sold over a billion mobile devices and, in the process, transformed an entire generation of teenagers into mindless, grumpy “screenagers.”

I’ll be the first to admit these devices are spellbinding. I, myself, was completely hooked  as the master showman himself, Steve Jobs, with his reality distortion field set to maximum began it all with the introduction of the first iPhone in January 2007.

Over the next eleven years as more students adopted these devices, I watched with increasing disappointment the high price students paid for constantly being connected but seldom present.

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Steve Jobs knew the cardinal rule of every drug dealer. You don’t get high on your own stash.

That’s probably not the world Steve Jobs imagined. But then again maybe he knew the impact these devices would have. In 2010 when a journalist asked Jobs, “Your kids must love the iPad?” he responded, “They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.” My guess is that Jobs just knew the cardinal rule for every drug dealer—You don’t get high on your own stash.

In fact, many Silicone Valley parents shun or at least severely limit technology access for their children. As school districts nation wide are embracing some form of a 1:1 device initiative, those at the epicenter of all things digital are saying no to technology on behalf of their children both at home and school.

It’s as if Henry Ford and most of his employees didn’t want their children to use cars.

Like Jobs, these tech purveyors know what took me years to learn—that today’s youth are addicted. Addicted to the dopamine inducing buzz of notifications announcing new messages, fire emoji streaks, and newly unlocked achievements. This has become an epidemic, and it is undermining education.

The Program

My program for improving student achievement and wellness is simple. Ban smartphones from your classroom. Better yet…your entire school. Here’s why it works.

Improving Final Exam Grades

In a study published this past summer, researchers found that when students were allowed to use their smartphones (or laptops) during lectures their final exam grade dropped by five percent. That’s half a letter grade.

Smartphones create educational black holes. Any learner caught inside the event horizon cannot escape and gets sucked in.

Here’s the rub. Even students who did not use a mobile device but were near classmates that did experienced the same final exam grade decrease. Translation: These devices are so distracting that they negatively impact the learning of nonusers.

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Much like Bart Simpson, smartphones impact the learning of nearby students. In the image above, Principal Skinner demonstrates how screens create a cone of ignorance.

Improving Overall Student Learning by 20 Percent

If you are wondering why your former A student is now a B student or even worse your C student is now failing look no further than the recently purchased device clenched in his or her hand.

Last year researchers wanted to measure the effect smartphones had on learning. They broke 800 participants into three groups with their smartphones on the desk face down, in their backpack, or left in another room. All phones were set to silent.

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Can you guess which group performed the best?

Participants took a series of tests designed to measure available cognitive capacity. That’s the brain’s ability to process and retain data. That’s fancy scientific talk for what we have our students do at school all day every day.

The group that left their phones in another room scored the best. In fact, they significantly outperformed the group who’s phones were left on the desk despite the fact that these devices were set to silent and laying upside down. They also outperformed those whose phones remained in a backpack.

The smartphone is this generation’s cigarette.

What does this mean? It means that having your smartphone in sight or even easily accessible reduces your ability to focus and perform tasks. The reason? Your brain is using some of it’s available cognitive capacity actively focusing on not picking up to use that mobile device.

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Side Note: When a person places their phone on a table right-side up or down, it sends the not so subtle message that it’s the most important thing in the room.

So if the mere presence of a smartphone is enough to reduce learning what happens when students are actually using the devices when they should be learning? The New York Times asked this very question of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab. Here’s the experiment they designed.

Like the previous study, participates were divided into three groups. All three groups read a passage and answered related questions. The first group was allowed to complete the test without interruption. The other two groups were told to keep their phones close as they might be contact for further instructions at any moment. These two groups were both interrupted…twice.

The results show that both interrupted groups answered 20 percent fewer questions correctly.

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In other words, notifications combined with the brain drain of preparing for those notifications makes us 20 percent dumber. That means:

  • A student who might have scored a 100 percent has slid to an 80.
  • The student who historically achieved a B has transformed into a D student.
  • Students who would have traditionally scored a 74 percent or less are now failing.

The Myth of Multitasking

Many students fall victim to the myth of multitasking. But it’s a lie we like to tell ourselves. In reality, you are just rapidly toggling between tasks. This start-stop-start again process is mentally exhausting. It makes us less efficient and prone to making mistakes.

Don’t Believe Me About Multitasking? Try This Self-Test.

Here’s an exercise that simulates multitasking with our smartphones. Using a stopwatch on your phone (Yes, I’m aware of the irony), time yourself writing the entire alphabet on one line and then on another line writing the numbers 1 – 26.

For example,

A  B  C …
1  2  3 …

Easy, right? Jot your time down before you forget. Now you are going to do the exercise again but this time alternate between writing the letter and the corresponding number. Don’t forget to time yourself.

For example,

A  1  B  2  C  3 …

A lot harder wasn’t it? Crazy how an easy task like that got so much more difficult. Check your work. Did you make any mistakes? Many people do. How long did it take? Longer, right? That’s what multitasking with a phone in hand does to everything.

videoblocks-boy-wasting-time-playing-games-on-smartphone-instead-of-doing-his-homework_hy0cgtiuz_thumbnail-full01
Students make homework harder and take longer when they have their phones present.

This is why teenagers have “so much” homework today. It isn’t that there’s actually more homework now than a generation ago. It’s just that the homework is taking longer to complete. When we allow our children to take their phones to their bedroom while they complete homework, we’re making work 20 percent harder, take longer, and ensure that they retain less of the information. Similarly, when we allow phones in our classrooms we’re doing the same time—making it harder, take longer, and ensure that they retain less of the information.

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Even if a student is attempting to focus, most are so addicted that they can’t go more than two minutes without reaching for their phone according to a professor at California State University-Dominguez Hills. Should a student be able to resist the urge, most teenagers’ smartphones will likely have a notification every nine minutes. You can’t get much work done in nine minute increments. Adults don’t fair much better. An article in The Wall Street Journal reported that most workers only get 11 minutes between interruptions. Unfortunately, it takes another 25 minutes to return to the original task.

This naturally begs the question. Why are we allowing these devices into our schools?

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Boosting Creativity

If you thought students armed with pocket-sized supercomputers capable of both filming and editing 4K video would do something more creative than take pictures of ceiling tiles in order to maintain Snapstreaks, you would be wrong. I’ll be the first to admit that today’s educational system does it’s fair share of stifling creativity. Don’t believe me? Watch Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk on the topic.

Any creativity that survives the culling at the hands of the educational industrial complex is completely extinguished by smartphones. To understand how that’s possible you need to know where creativity comes from. You can find it at the intersection of boredom and deep thought.

Students reach for their phones partially out of habit but also at the first hint of boredom. Little to they know that being bored is the prelude to greatness. As boredom fosters creativity, reflection, and processing time.

Try This Creativity Self-Test.
During your next commute, skip the the playlist or podcast and try silence instead. You might be surprised at the results when you give yourself time to be alone with your own thoughts.

Being bored also means being alone with your thoughts. Oddly enough for most teens that’s both hard work and a frightening concept. Students use their phones—typically through the use of earbudsto avoid any of this. Let’s be honest. Teenagers typically avoid doing anything difficult. It’s human nature and our mobile devices make avoiding hard work easy.

There is already so much digital noise in the lives of today’s youth that time without an earbud dangling from an ear would be highly beneficial. There’s a reason we don’t play music during high-stake testing or that home team fans are silent during basketball game free throws.

Enhancing Student Wellness

Research has repeatedly shown that smartphone use increases loneliness and depression; helps fuel anxiety, increases stress; exacerbates attention deficit disorders; diminishes your ability to concentrate, think deeply, or creatively; and encourages self-absorption. Many of these problems can be solved by simply getting more rest.

The most obvious form of rest is sleep. Unfortunately, a majority of teenagers don’t get enough to begin with. Chronic smartphone users get even less. In fact a major contributing factor for depression is the lack of sleep. Furthermore, rates of teenage depression and suicide have increased every year since 2013 in lock step with increased teenage smartphone ownership rates.

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Rest also means down time to reflect on the concepts presented in class. That can’t happen if the moment the presentation ends everyone busts out their phones. Bodybuilders know that their muscles grow while resting not while working out in the gym. The same holds true for our brains. Constant smartphone stimulation doesn’t allow time for that growth to happen.

Diminishing Returns

Using our phones is pleasurable. Very pleasurable. On a chemical level, as pleasurable as having sexual intercourse. Notifications, rewards, texts,  streaks, unlocking rewards, and leveling up, it all releases dopamine and dopamine makes us feel good. When something feels good, it’s hard to stop.

Releases Dopamine

Despite dopamine making us feeling good, studies have shown that the more we use these devices the worse we feel. Like an addict, chasing that first high we need more rewards, more likes, more streaks, more notifications to get the same high.

People who stopped using social media report feeling better about themselves. In one study, half the participants were asked to give up Facebook for a week while the other were to continue their normal use. At the end of the week, both groups returned and surveyed again as to their emotional well-being. Those who had given up social media for the week reported feeling better than those who did not.

Girls seem to be especially effected. Several times a week before school, between classes, or at lunch, I see distraught female students clutching their phones like a security blanket furiously typing. Little do they know that much of their angst comes the very device in which they seek solace.

Being effective for 95 percent of your students

This summer the Pew Research Center reported that almost all teenagers (95 percent to be exact) in the United States have access to a smartphone. As a teacher in a Lancaster County, Pennsylvania school district I can assure you that statistic is accurate. Of my 75 students, I can count on one hand those that do not have a device.

Perhaps even more frightening is the statistic from the same study stating that nearly half of all American teenagers indicated they are “almost constantly” online.

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So there we have it. By making one small change—removing smartphones from our classrooms and schools—we could vastly improve not only learning but also the emotional health of 95 percent of all American screenagers…er, I mean teenagers.

So what are you waiting for? Join me in prohibiting smartphones from your classroom. Lobby your school administration to ban them from your school. Prohibit them from the kitchen table and family time. Remove their presence during homework. Doing so will guarantee a smarter, happier, and more self-confident teenager.

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The opinions expressed here are solely my own. They do not, in any way, represent those of my employer, my co-workers, or my dog. If you enjoyed this post, you may be interested in reading The biggest risk to student learning is in their pocket. Why you need to BAN smartphones from your classroomWhy a technology teacher banned tech from his classroom, and Seven uncomfortable truths we ignore about our phones.

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I have also developed an app, BeePresent, that gamifies non-phone use. It works especially well in group settings the larger the better in fact. You can learn more at BeePresent.info.

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