UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – It’s probably the cell phones

“Hey! Look up! Stop texting and just walk.”

The number of times teachers these days have to say that to students simply to avoid a collision in the hallway is truly staggering. Gen Z and now Generation Alpha are so glued to their phones they can barely look away for a few minutes walking from one class to another. And, of course, the minute they arrive in their classrooms before the bell, they sit at their desks hunched over the screen again, scrolling an endless stream of addictive media.

NBC News recently reported on the overwhelming digital stimulus kids are bombarded with daily. According to a report from Common Sense Media, the average kid and teenager receives nearly 300 messages or notifications daily. Some users report getting as many as 5,000 in a 24-hour period. That sort of sensory and emotional overload simply can’t benefit the brain. Jim Steyer, the CEO of Common Sense Media, laments how young people “literally wake up and before they go to the bathroom, they’re on their phone.”

The problem – truly a sociological epidemic – has become so pervasive and detrimental that the state of Florida recently passed legislation virtually banning the use of cell phones, especially the social media app Tik-Tok, by students during class time. All districts must develop clear, specific policies that prevent the use of cell phones by students during school hours unless directed to use them for instructional purposes. And, of course, in places where students have laptops or computer access, the cell phone is completely unnecessary at school. 

The incessant presence of cell phones is clearly playing a key role in social problems with teens. Noah Smith, a researcher and columnist for Bloomberg Media, notes a strong correlation between rising rates of unhappiness in teens and their pervasive cell phone existence. From rising absenteeism to stagnant academic results to stunning levels of reported anxiety and depression, along with an overwhelming ennui and sense of detached hopelessness, there’s little doubt kids are struggling in ways they haven’t before. 

While many people blame the isolation of the pandemic for teen mental health issues, Smith’s analysis of the data suggests the problems began to rise exponentially in about 2012, which is about the time smartphones became a common accessory for people. Psychologist Jean Twenge agrees, naming the young people of today — and the title of her book — iGen, Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. 

Tik-Tok is undoubtedly fueling dissatisfaction with the world, especially among young people. A New York Times story recently suggested “Tik-Tok economics” is the reason young people fret about the economy despite key indicators trending positive. In fact, one social media creator has even coined the phrase “Vibecession” to reflect the economic despair young people are expressing on social media in contrast to positive economic news. And research suggests young people predominantly get their news from Tik-Tok, using it as a search engine more than Google. 

Years ago, on Conan O’Brien’s talk show, comedian Louis C.K. gave an amusing but sincere explanation for why he wouldn’t get his daughter a cell phone. He decried what he called “the forever empty,” which is our constant need for stimulus and validation. People continuously reach for their cell phones because they can’t be alone, having lost the ability to simply “be yourself and not be doing something.” This constant craving for entertainment, distraction or validation consumes people so much they can’t even sit in their cars at a stoplight for 45 seconds without reaching for their cell phone. From the dentist’s office to the barber shop to the line at the post office, everyone is scrolling. 

Cell phones are not going away, but we can take a few basic steps to decrease the corrosive influence they have on our lives. One simple bit of advice – ok, it’s kind of a directive – that I give my students every day is to simply not walk with their cell phones in their hands. Put it in a pocket or in their backpack. Stop texting, stop scrolling, stop Snapping, stop streaming, and just walk.

As everyone looks forward to the upcoming holidays to reconnect with friends and families, let’s try to leave the cell phones out of it.