Beyond Bans: Schools’ Role in a Hard Reset on the ‘Phone-Based Childhood’

Last month, a story by Jonathan Haidt in The Atlantic broke through the firewall that often separates education reform and parenting conversations: people from both my personal and professional network circulated Haidt’s scathing take on the immense costs that smartphones and social media have exacted on children and adolescents. 

In “End the phone-based childhood now,” Haidt carefully traces the decline of play and independence (and its relationship to increased risk aversion and anxiety), the rise of smartphones (and the harms of 24/7 access to an under-regulated digital world on brain development), and the dark side of techno-optimism (that laid the foundation for a whole generation to get swept up in new tools that had few guardrails in place). 

His piece masterfully weaves together a host of data points demonstrating how, in the course of a single decade, childhood and adolescence were “rewired” to be “more sedentary, solitary, virtual, and incompatible with healthy human development.” The shift was seismic. “Once young people began carrying the entire internet in their pockets, available to them day and night, it altered their daily experiences and developmental pathways across the board,” Haidt writes. “Friendship, dating, sexuality, exercise, sleep, academics, politics, family dynamics, identity—all were affected.”

Haidt concludes his manifesto with four simple (although not necessarily easy) steps to correcting course: (1) no smartphones before high school, (2) no social media before 16, (3) no phones in schools, and (4) more independence, free play, and responsibility in the real world. 

His recommendations are directed at society as a whole. But they belie an inconvenient truth that education systems must face head-on: schools are inextricably linked to the good, bad, and ugly of what’s happening in the consumer market. Schools may not be responsible for the dumpster fire that phones and social media have ignited, but they are also one of the few institutions–besides the highly decentralized institution of the “family”–with the power to protect and enrich young people’s social lives and healthy development. 

Because if the past twenty years of social media have taught us one thing, it’s that we have a startling dearth of business models and policies to support tech that promotes prosocial behavior.

Julia Freeland Fisher

Banning phones in schools could help. But based on my own research, here are three things that education policymakers, systems leaders, and edtech providers will need to wrestle with if they want to take Haidt’s recommendations seriously:

Advocate for Business Models and Policies that Promote Prosocial Behavior

One of the ironies of the devastating disconnection that phones and social media have produced is that these tools, at their inception, were breakthroughs in scaling connection itself. 

Used properly, dreaded screen time can morph into precious face time, connecting us across time zones, expanding the reach of our networks, and affording us more frequent and low-cost conversations with loved ones and colleagues around the world. 

Those very affordances could make the four walls of schools radically more permeable: Imagine a classroom where, at the press of a button, middle schoolers could talk to an actual scientist about a project they’re working on, or high schoolers could hear about a wide range of college and career experiences from alumni of their school. These are not just possible, but incredibly affordable, with modern technology. 

But until we reckon with an acute lack of incentives and policies to build positive social connection, banning phones is likely the safest route. Because if the past twenty years of social media have taught us one thing, it’s that we have a startling dearth of business models and policies to support tech that promotes prosocial behavior. Social media platforms make money on engagement, and even more money on addiction. There are few business incentives to encourage young people to build positive connections online, much less to spend more of their time deepening and diversifying connections offline.

Edtech markets aren’t causing the ills that Haidt outlines, but they also aren’t immune to some of the same shortcomings. In fact, edtech tools rarely promote prosocial behavior or foster new connections. At the root of this is the fact that schools today aren’t demanding solutions that deepen connection–if anything, the edtech market has evolved around clear demand for efficiency innovations that require less cost-intensive human interaction, not more.

The answer? Education policies–both local and state and federal–must start to name and put dollars towards positive social connection as an outcome in its own right. That’s the only way that the incentives inside of school systems will start to better align to the broader need to reorient how technology gets used beyond school. More importantly, we could start to see technology get used in service of helping students develop more positive connections, both online and off.

Build Family Engagement to Buoy Collective Action

Schools and families are going to have to work together when it comes to a hard reset on tech use and social media. That won’t be easy.

As Haidt points out, part of what’s driven troubling rates of tech addiction and ensuing isolation has less to do with technology and more to do with a collective action problem: parents, schools, and policymakers struggle to define, agree upon, and deliver on what’s “good” for children.

New models of family engagement will need to emerge to make a dent in–and effectively enforce–more responsible tech policies. My colleague Mahnaz Charania’s research on family engagement spotlighted emerging innovations that could rewrite and deepen the family-school compact. Part of this has to do with building family engagement models anchored in two-way trust, rather than one-way communication from schools to parents. Perhaps even more powerful are models that connect families to one another, moving away from the typical hub-and-spoke paradigm of school-to-family to a networked model whereby schools and families support one another in more dynamic and responsive ways.

This, likewise, probably needs to start with policy change: if we have any hope of erecting tech guardrails that stick, I suspect that education systems will need to see family engagement as more of an essential and less of a nice-to-have. 

Build Real-World Experiences in the Age of AI

There’s another article that should lend urgency to getting this right. It’s a memo from the $35 billion dollar venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz called “It’s not a computer, it’s a companion!” It came out last summer and hasn’t made the rounds in my education or parenting circles. But it needs to.

It’s a road map to a dystopian future where AI companions “live among us”, where AI boyfriends and girlfriends are touted as ‘better than’ the real thing, and where Silicon Valley cashes out on the very same vulnerabilities that social media has exploited. 

Read alongside Haidt’s piece, the memo should make your blood boil. Nowhere does the word loneliness appear despite being the bedrock and fuel for this emerging market of AI companions. 

AI evangelists will rightfully argue that some of these so-called companions can dramatically improve our lives, offering a welcome alternative to cost-intensive supports like tutoring, coaching, and guidance that young people desperately need and too often don’t get.

While those use cases merit enthusiasm, we need to proceed with immense caution. In the coming years, we will be walking a tightrope between innovations that help make humans more productive and innovations that irreparably harm their social connectedness. Young people are especially vulnerable. As John Bailey has warned, “Kids will want the affirming relationships that they can have with their AI system. That sounds like science fiction until you experience the technology.” 

It would be one thing if we didn’t have two decades of data showing us all of the detrimental effects that “social” consumer technologies can have on development. But, as Haidt’s piece illustrates, we do. And still, we have glib investors about to make a ton of money selling simulated connections that promise to lure us, and our children, online. 

Remember how schools have to absorb the costs of consumer technologies? Without a commitment to safeguarding childhood in all the ways Haidt outlines, the rapid rise of AI companions stands to further erode young people’s access to and ability to be in real human relationships by peddling frictionless alternatives. 

This is where Haidt’s fourth recommendation, that young people must be drawn back into the real world, is something schools can and should take seriously. Regulation alone can’t and won’t stop investors from capitalizing on our loneliness and the particular vulnerabilities of young people’s still-developing brains. We also have to play offense. We have to find ways to outcompete AI companionship. “Real world learning”–a darling of some education reformers, but still a distant notion in many traditional schools–should be resourced and prioritized at new heights, not just as a powerful learning tool, but as one that centers human connection as a vital component of healthy youth development.  

The picture these two articles paint is not a pretty one: but it’s one where schools must play an even larger leadership role. By prioritizing prosocial behavior, investing in deeper family engagement, and leaning into the power of real-world learning, schools can help today’s young people reclaim their childhood–and lessen the likelihood that AI companions steal the next generation’s.

Julia Freeland Fisher

Julia Freeland Fisher is the Director of Education at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She is the author of Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students’ Networks.

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