Kids can’t stop themselves – time for the adults to step in

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How often do you check your smartphone?

Every hour? Every five minutes? Multiple times per minute?

Stop and think about why. Are you really waiting for an urgent call — say, from a doctor, a family member or your boss?

Or are you just hoping there will be something cool or funny there? A bit of gossip. A humorous meme. A viral video. A breaking news update. Anything to distract you from the monotony of real life.

This week, my AP Psych students were learning about behaviorism, and we watched a video of one of Skinner’s pigeons maniacally pecking a disc for food. It looked just like many of us, maniacally swiping our phones, hoping for just a little dopamine boost.

Here’s the thing: Those pigeons in Skinner’s boxes really didn’t have anything better to do.

But we do. We have lots of better things to do — like learn new things or enjoy nature or form real-life relationships — but too many of us are living like addicts, always distracted by the allure of the phone.

And it’s worse for our kids.

According to Nicholas Carr’s Oct. 6 Wall Street Journal article, one study found that  “students who didn’t bring their phones to the classroom scored a full letter-grade higher on a test of the material presented than those who brought their phones. It didn’t matter whether the students who had their phones used them or not.”

Even when we’re not using our phones, they cause a “brain drain” that diminishes “learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving, and creativity.”

This New York Times article explains that smartphone use is also correlated with increasing rates of depression and anxiety in teenagers. It’s no wonder, when kids are one-upping each other (or worse yet, bullying each other) on Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram 24-7.

These smartphones that rule our lives are not just making learning harder; they’re making growing up harder.

I think most parents agree that this is a problem — and they expect their children to put away the phones during class. But putting them away isn’t enough. According to the WSJ article, phones have to be physically removed from the room to stop distracting — and most teachers can tell you it’s a losing battle anyway.

“They Snapchat in my class,” one friend told me. “I’m going to snap.”

“They’re a constant distraction,” another said. “If you allow a little use, a little turns into a lot of use really quickly.”

He has a very strict policy on phone use now because he was “nickel and dimed to death” with infractions, like kids walking out of class to take calls (from their parents) and posting to Instagram during class.

What are we going to do about this? Clearly, it’s not enough to trust kids to make good decisions about smartphone use.

First of all, we need parents to either turn off their children’s data plans during school hours or refuse to pay for data plans altogether. (We didn’t buy either of our children a smartphone until they were out of high school, and I’m really glad.)

Second, we need secure places at school where kids can lock their phones up during the day. Kids don’t want to leave them in lockers, and teachers don’t want to take them and be responsible if something happens. We need separate free phone lockers, like the free mini-lockers at the gym where you can lock your keys and ID (and yes, phone).

Third, we need to have parent meetings, where we help parents understand what a crisis this is for our students and get them on board.

And finally, we teachers need to be good role models for our students. We need to keep our own phones out of sight and out of mind during the school day.

When I told my AP Psych students about the WSJ article — after watching Skinner’s pigeons — they expressed no surprise whatsoever. It’s like a drug, they said. It’s so hard to stop checking.

That’s why we have to step in and stop for them.

Photo from