Opinion: It’s starting to look like using smartphones in schools will be the new smoking in the bathroom

On June 18, Newsom vowed to severely restrict the use of smartphones in California schools and hopes to pass restrictions during the state’s current legislative session, which ends in August. — Getty Images/The New York Times

Let’s be clear: Young kids, who are still navigating their sense of self, are locked into a hyper-digital world that comes with potentially fatal risks – and spending way too much time there.

US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy seems to agree. On June 17, he declared adolescent use of social media a medical emergency, and called on Congress to require social media platforms to come with warnings, similar to those printed on alcohol, tobacco, or nicotine products.

Nearly all youth between ages 13 and 17 report using social media, according to a statement by Murthy, and more than a third of those say they use it “almost constantly.” This use, he said in an op-ed published by the New York Times, “is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents,” and some lawmakers, like California Gov. Gavin Newsom, are heeding his warning. On June 18, Newsom vowed to severely restrict the use of smartphones in California schools and hopes to pass restrictions during the state’s current legislative session, which ends in August.

Cellphone bans, however, are difficult to enforce, and the bathroom – a longtime location students have used to indulge in their vices – might become a contentious hotspot in the crackdown.

“When adolescents spend more than three hours a day on social media, we are seeing an association with a doubling of risk of anxiety and depression symptoms,” Murthy said in an interview with NBC, adding youth spend an average of about five hours a day on social media. “Many of them say they can’t get off it.”

Murthy recommends parents, teachers, and guardians establish “phone-free zones” for children during meals, bedtime, and social gatherings – and that children have no access to social media until they finish middle school. His advice has been taken seriously by lawmakers around the country: Last summer, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill prohibiting cellphone use during class time, and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul is also considering smartphone bans in New York schools.

In California, Newsom is also spearheading more legislation in-line with Murthy’s recent warning.

“As the surgeon general affirmed, social media is harming the mental health of our youth,” Newsom said in an interview with Politico. “I look forward to working with the legislature to restrict the use of smartphones during the school day. When children and teens are in school, they should be focused on their studies – not their screens.”

Newsom’s push to crack down on phone use at schools isn’t new: In 2019, he signed legislation encouraging schools to create policies that would limit or simply ban student use of smartphones on school grounds during the school day, and last year, he wrote a letter calling on the tech industry to drop a lawsuit against the children’s online safety law he signed in 2022. His most recent announcement on smartphone use would deepen those policies.

While phone use and social media can be helpful at times, especially for young people grappling with their sexuality, it’s clearly a growing distraction at schools. A report by nonprofit organisation Common Sense Media found 97% of students used their phones during the school day for a median of 43 minutes; keep in mind, the average school day is around 6.5 hours. And in a 2022 global survey of about 700,000 15-year-olds, about two-thirds of respondents reported being distracted by digital devices in schools, while about half report being distracted by other students using devices.

Social media – chock-full with photoshopped models, movie stars, and influencers, misinformation, and more – is also known to fuel mental health issues, and often interferes with time that could be spent on more healthy activities like exercising, sleeping, eating, and socialising.

Between ages 10 and 19, according to Murthy’s report, children’s brains undergo “a highly sensitive period,” when “identities and feelings of self-worth are forming.” Frequent social media use could affect functions like emotional learning, impulse control, and emotional regulation. Although many social media platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, require users to be at least age 13 to join, it’s hard to regulate: Nearly 40% of children between ages 8 and 12 say they use at least one social media platform.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that as of 2020, 77% of schools prohibit students from using cellphones during school hours. But Murthy’s recent calls have prompted concrete action by many school districts. On Tuesday, Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the nation, voted to pass a “phone-free school day” policy, which will ban the use of cellphones in the classroom and bolster the district’s efforts to reduce youth anxiety and cyberbullying.

Other schools that have banned phones, including the Village School of Naples, a Florida private school, reported a 94% improvement in mental well-being after deploying a cellphone ban two years ago. – Fortune.com/The New York Times

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