Social media is crushing kids' mental health. Get smartphones out of Iowa schools. (2024)

  • Limiting phone access is hard to do piecemeal
  • We know enough to take some actions now and keep up work on best practices

Tech companies have engineered a stranglehold on the attentions of American children.

Seeing the myriad harms that smartphones and social media have wrought, people in authority from the local to the national levels are taking aggressive steps to intervene. Their peers, from the smallest rural school to the halls of Congress, should take note, because winning this fight will require collective resistance.

Des Moines Hoover High School is among the most recent schools to decide to do away with phones in the classroom completely, as a plank of the school’s Mental Health Movement.

Phones in school have a few tangible upsides, but the damage dwarfs any benefit:

Social media enables public bullying. Phones relentlessly distract from lessons. Cruel online interactions devastate confidence and well-being. In tangible terms, researchers say that eighth- and 10th-graders spend on average over three hours a day on social media. One study demonstrated significant increases in depression and anxiety after Facebook became available to college students. A catalog of inflicted pain could go on for pages.

When students return to Hoover in northwest Des Moines next month, phones and headphones will be barred from classrooms. Administrators say they expect that adjusting from an always-connected status quo will be challenging for some students during the first few weeks. But they said they’re confident the results will be worth it.

Limiting phone access is hard to do piecemeal

Hoover and other schools do not act in a vacuum. Some of the draw of constant social-media and text-message contact is fear of missing out on what’s happening in those spaces – just ask any parent who has fought a lonely fight when trying to draw any line with a children’s internet devices. It’s harder to follow through on the “Wait Until 8th” pledge (to not give a child a smartphone at least before eighth grade) if your family is, as your children will insist, the only holdout.

When it comes to this collective-action problem, a rule at the school level should put Hoover students on more of a level playing field during the seven hours of the school day. But both to foster the health and success their own students and to help change societal norms, the rest of Des Moines Public Schools, and schools throughout central Iowa and the whole state, ought to follow suit as soon as it’s practicable.

Compared with some challenges in education, the logistics here seem relatively straightforward. Many vendors sell banks of secure phone lockers that work out to one-time investments of less than $20 per student. Although it’s fair to be wary of appeals to “back in my day,” families did in fact manage to reach their children at school during emergencies for many decades before ubiquitous phones.

We know enough to take some actions now and keep up work on best practices

Always-online culture has taken over so quickly that social research hasn’t completely kept up with documenting all the cause and effect of social media and mental health harms. But we know enough to act.

That’s essentially the message Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, has been championing for the past couple of years, most recently advocating congressional action to implement warning labels explaining potential consequences of social media use. Murthy’s staff has itself compiled an impressive body of research and tips for parents, educators, policymakers and more.

"This is a place where government needs to step in, because we've run the experiment of letting the platforms do it by themselves," Murthy told Register reporters earlier this year. "That 20-year experiment has failed. And it's demonstrated to us that it's come at the cost of the mental health and well-being of our children."

Iowa legislators have proposed several more aggressive regulatory ideas that fizzled, in some cases as technology companies warned of unintended consequences for the experiences of adult users. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments this fall about Texas age-verification laws and the First Amendment in a case specifically relating to p*rnography websites. The work of finding the correct balance of competing interests should continue.

The engineers and developers at social media companies are very good at their jobs, which is to drive hours upon hours of engagement by making their products seem indispensable. Parents and principals and teachers and lawmakers need to be very good at their jobs to prevent that influence from drowning our children. Hoover is helping to show a commendable piece of the path forward.

Lucas Grundmeier, on behalf of the Register’s editorial board

FURTHER READING: 6 ways schools are managing students' cellphone use

FURTHER READING: States want to ban phones in schools. It may be a challenge.

This editorial is the opinion of the Des Moines Register's editorial board: Carol Hunter, executive editor; Lucas Grundmeier, opinion editor; and Richard Doak and Rox Laird, editorial board members.

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Social media is crushing kids' mental health. Get smartphones out of Iowa schools. (2024)
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