Parents Magazine ran an informal poll on Facebook this month asking, “Do you think cell phones should be completely banned in all schools?”
One mom’s response summed up almost everyone else’s: “No. I want my child to have a chance to say goodbye as they hide from the active shooter.”
As schools around the nation grapple with the phone ban question, being reachable during a shooting seems to be the top-of-mind issue. So let’s grapple with that for a moment, and then widen our lens to consider what constant parental availability means for kids’ mental health.
(As for whether kids can concentrate on language arts while watching #PetsOfTikTok — I think we all grasp that issue without too much discussion.)
Despite the fact that children have gone to school without a personal phone since the dawn of the desk, somehow that notion has recently become untenable. The parental worry about school shootings reminds me of the older parental worry about stranger danger … and how it completely upended childhood. Since the predator panic of the 1980s — with the milk carton kids and the advent of the 24-hour news cycle — adults been allowing kids to do less and less on their own.
A 1979 book listed the things almost every first-grader could do, including “travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home.” I’ll wait while you get the smelling salts. Today about 1 kid in 10 walks or bikes to school. The National Recreation and Park Association found that kids spend 4 to 7 minutes a day in unstructured, outdoor play. A study just out from the University of Michigan found 85 percent of parents of kids ages 9 to 11 won’t let them trick-or-treat with friends without adult supervision.
Instead, kids are largely in adult-supervised activities or they’re at home on their devices. But by keeping kids safe from an extremely unlikely danger — abduction — parents accidentally expose them to an increasingly common danger. Two, actually: anxiety and depression.
A recent Journal of Pediatrics report found that over the decades kids’ independence has been going down, and so has their mental health. The article explains why: When you have an “internal locus of control” — a feeling that you can handle things and make things happen — you feel confident and optimistic. When you have an “external locus of control” — the feeling someone else is in charge — you’re depressed.
That’s what has happened to childhood. Todays children are loved — no one questions that — but not trusted to do almost anything safely or successfully on their own. They’re the opposite of those brave “Stranger Things” kids on their bikes.
To reverse engineer the misery of being underestimated and overprotected, adults have to let children do more on their own again. Yes, even knowing they won’t be perfectly safe.
Which brings us to the phone debate.
Like child abductions, school shootings terrify us but are extremely unlikely, thankfully. (I know it doesn’t feel that way, so here are the stats: Averaged out, five children a year have died in active shooter situations since 2000.) School shootings are tragic, for sure, but also rare. To calm their fears, many parents want their children to be reachable by phone or smartwatch at all times. They see no downside. But there are many.
Phones distract from classwork. They also provide an all-too-easy alternative to the demands of real-world interactions, in favor of the frictionless fun online. But the greatest threat is to independence. A kid carrying a phone can contact their parents for almost any reason. Are they actually doing that? In some cases, yes.
“Kids message their parents from their Chromebooks or sneak-text in their locker from their phones,” Jodi Maurici, a middle school teacher on Long Island, wrote me when I asked. “It is getting more brazen and now happening in the elementary school. Kids are texting from their smartwatches and the parents drop everything to intervene or run to the school to solve — fill in the blank: Tissues that are softer than the school provides. Water bottles because they don’t like the water fountain. Sporting equipment because they don’t want to carry it. The list is endless — not to mention the forgotten homework, projects, and permission slips.”
But being ever-available to solve our kids’ problems undermines their ability to solve their own problems. It can even undermine their belief in themselves. After all, their parents don’t think they can handle an entire school day on their own. And for all that, the phones aren’t making them safer.
Safety experts say that in the event of any disaster at a school, including a shooting, kids should be completely focused on following instructions, not trying to text. Worse, a phone can ring or light up exactly when it shouldn’t. So what is the upside of phones at school?
There isn’t one. Just as “helicopter parenting” destroyed kids’ after-school autonomy, “electronic parenting” can destroy kids’ during-school autonomy. Here’s the letter my friend recently received from her child’s principal: “It has come to my attention that some first-grade students are using smartwatches during school hours. Even more concerning is that they are receiving incoming calls from their families.”
If anxiety and depression due to a lack of independence were spiking before phones in schools, this DEFCON level of hovering cannot be doing kids any favors.
Let’s keep our kids safe from the biggest, most common threat to their well-being: The crippling belief that they always need their parent’s help, always must be reachable, and are always in some kind of danger.