On May 10th, San Diego State University professor Jean Twenge wrote a piece in the San Diego Union-Tribune “Phone-free schools? Students need distraction-free learning” wherein she argued that the California State Legislature would be wise to pass Assembly Bill 272.
While I applaud Ms. Twenge’s long-term research interest in studying the impact of technology on the lives of teenagers and adolescents readers must understand the long-held dystopian context from which she presents her case. Her dystopian view of technology and teenagers (and young adults, in general) sells a lot of books as it tells adults exactly what they want to hear about teenagers– that left alone teenagers will ruin themselves.
Allow me to present three counter-arguments to why I think Assembly Bill 272 is a bad idea:
- Incomplete Science
We simply don’t know the long-term positive or negative impact of smartphones in the lives of teenagers as there hasn’t been enough research conducted. A lot of what gets cited as scientific proof is actually separate research on the lives of teenagers about something else that have correlated together. For example, there is a rise in the rate at which teenagers are prescribed drugs for anxiety. Some have hypothesized that this rise in anxiety correlates to the rise of smartphone adoption. And that may be the case. But it could also be that doctors are being trained to prescribe more psychiatric drugs to teenagers. Or it could be that teenagers now are better educated about anxiety and are better at verbalizing that they need help. Or it could be the something else is making them anxious. But to claim that a cause of this rise of anxiety on the smartphone without longitudinal, peer reviewed studies looking specifically at that? Seems like pop science to me, or incomplete science at best.
- School Violence
No wonder teenagers are experiencing more anxiety, school itself is more deadly than ever. In my time as a student I never experienced a lockdown or active shooter drill. Growing up in Indiana we had tornado drills and fire drills, but the most violent thing that ever happened on our campus was a fist fight, not a student with an AR-15. I travel the country talking to teenagers and parents about technology and, by far, the number one reason parents give their child a smartphone is to communicate with them. Is the state legislature truly in a position to take away their smartphone if that means that during or after a school shooting parents can’t check on their kids? Many campuses in California are spread out over a large property like Grossmont High School, here in the San Diego area. Don’t schools have a responsibility to use whatever means available to keep students safe in the event of an emergency? Assembly Bill 272 forgets that in the event of the worst case scenario, we need to equip our students with every resource they need to survive. And that includes their smartphone. Let’s acknowledge the worst could happen and keep those communications devices close to our kiddos, in their backpacks. Shame on us if we allow someone tickling our ears into passing a law that may actually cost a child their life.
- Local Governance
Most disturbing to me in Assembly Bill 272 is the larger question. Why is the state legislature trying to make a decision that should be made at the classroom, school, or school board level? Isn’t that why we have them?
- My assumption is that this bill is well meaning. It’s meant, as ill conceived as I think it is, to maximize the instructional time in the classroom by eliminating what is perceived to be a systemic problem. But what it is really doing is devaluing the decision-making of thousands of classroom teachers, administrators, and elected citizens who serve on school boards throughout our state. I would much rather see the state assembly invest time in coming up with additional funding for our schools so that California classrooms have everything they need than I would to enable them to override the professionals at the local level.
We don’t need Assembly Bill 272. What we need is more research specifically into how technology may positively or negatively impact the classroom, more realistic preventative measures to school violence, and to empower local school leadership.