What If Banning Smartphones in Schools Is Just the Beginning?

EdSurge Podcast

What If Banning Smartphones in Schools Is Just the Beginning?

How one teacher-of-the-year changed his lessons to help students detox from excessive social-media use.

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jun 25, 2024

What If Banning Smartphones in Schools Is Just the Beginning?

This article is part of the upcoming collection: How Social Media Influences Teaching, Learning and the Student Experience.

The movement to keep smartphones out of schools is gaining momentum.

Just last week, the nation’s second-largest public school system, Los Angeles Unified School District, voted to ban smartphones starting in January, citing adverse health risks of social media for kids. And the U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, published an op-ed in The New York Times calling for warning labels on social media systems, saying “the mental health crisis among young people is an emergency.”

But some longtime teachers say that while such moves are a step in the right direction, educators need to take a more-active role in countering some negative effects of excessive social media use by students. Essentially, they should redesign assignments and how they instruct to help teach mental focus, modeling how to read, write and research away from the constant interruptions of social media and app notifications.

That’s the view of Lee Underwood, a 12th grade AP English literature and composition teacher at Millikan High School in Long Beach, California, who was the teacher of the year for his public school system in 2022.

He’s been teaching since 2006, so he remembers a time before the invention of the iPhone, Instagram or TikTok. And he says he is concerned by the change in behavior among his students, which has intensified in recent years.

“There is a lethargy that didn't exist before,” he says. “The responses of students were quicker, sharper. There was more of a willingness to engage in our conversations, and we had dynamic conversations.”

He tried to keep up his teaching style, which he feels had been working, but responses from students were different. “The last three years, four years since COVID, my jokes that I tell in my classroom have not been landing,” he says. “And they're the same jokes.”

Underwood has been avidly reading popular books and articles about the impact of smartphones on today’s young people. For instance, he read the much-talked-about book by Jonathan Haidt, “The Anxious Generation,” that has helped spark many recent efforts by schools to do more to counter the consequences of smartphones and social media.

Some have countered Haidt’s arguments, however, by pointing out that while young people face growing mental health challenges, there is little scientific evidence that social media is causing those issues. And just last month on this podcast, Ellen Galinsky, author of a book on what brain science reveals about how best to teach teens, argued that banning social media might backfire, and that kids need to learn how to regulate smartphone use on their own to prepare them for the world beyond school.

“Evidence shows very, very clearly that the ‘just say no’ approach in adolescence — where there's a need for autonomy — does not work,” she said. “In the studies on smoking, it increased smoking.”

Yet Underwood argues that he has felt the impact of social media on his concentration and focus firsthand. And these days he’s changing what he does in the classroom to bring in techniques and strategies that helped him counter the negative impacts of smartphones he experienced.

And he has a strong reaction to Galinsky’s argument.

“We don't let kids smoke in school,” he points out. “Maybe some parts of the ‘just say no campaigns’ broadly didn't work, but then no one's allowing smoking in schools.”

His hope is that the school day can be reserved as a time where students know they can get away from the downsides of smartphone and social media use.

“That's six hours of a school day where you can show a student, bring them to a kind of homeostasis, where they can see what it would be like without having that constant distraction,” he argues.

Hear the full conversation, as well as examples of how he’s redesigned his lessons, on this week’s episode. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.

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