One Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) teacher calls it the “cellephant.”
For a significant number of middle and high school students in FUSD, attending classes regularly involves slipping into a digital world for a major chunk of instructional time. The problem of the cellephant has become entrenched over the past several years, and—as has happened in many other districts—FUSD hasn’t yet gotten it under control.
About 20 years ago, FUSD’s leadership initiated a single district-wide policy, one that imposed consequences for students who were using “communication devices” inappropriately on school grounds. Over time, however, that policy lapsed, and now, according to a district spokesperson, site administrators are allowed to determine for themselves how this issue should be dealt with.
Some sites, notably Bullard High School, have attempted to rein in phone use and made some headway. Others have opted for a relatively lax approach to digital misbehavior. In some classrooms, teachers just look the other way and ignore the issue completely.
However, evidence pointing to the dangers of excessive exposure to digital media—including social media and “games”—has been mounting.
Last year, CalMatters reported that researchers at a nonprofit cobbled together profiles on TikTok in which they pretended to be 13-year-old girls. The content that began to appear for their fake profiles included videos about eating disorders and body image. TikTok even “recommended suicide content within 2.6 minutes and eating disorder content within 8 minutes.”
Catering to young digital users has proved to be highly profitable.
BBC reporters have documented how computer games tempt children to spend money online.
In one case, a youngster shelled out $200 within days while playing Roblox. And those playing World of Tanks, for example, are prompted to upgrade their weapons using PlayStation credit.
Many gaming firms rake in a lot of their profits with the help of these “microtransactions”; in fact, that’s a key part of their business model. Younger gamers can be particularly susceptible to this type of manipulation.
To make things even more profitable, some companies employ “obfuscation techniques”—such as currencies established within games—to make it more difficult to figure out how much you’re actually forking over.
Joel Bakan examined the strategies of child marketing at length in his book Childhood Under Siege. He observes that “having discovered that manipulating children’s deep emotions is a formula for success, kid marketeers push that formula as far as they can, doing whatever it takes without apparent constraint or concern, to work the emotions of youth into profit.
“It is this dynamic…that drives them to ramp up media violence, cultivate addiction, cynically exploit social network friendships, sexualize girls and promote hyperconsumerism.”
Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, weighed in on this topic recently. On May 23, he issued a public advisory that warns about the risks that social media pose for the young.
According to his findings, “95% of teens reported that they used at least one social media platform—and more than a third said that they used social media ‘almost constantly.’ Such digital habits could lead to significant changes in the developing brain—specifically to the amygdala and prefrontal cortex.”
This is especially troubling because, as Dr. Murthy pointed out in a New York Times interview, “adolescents are not just smaller adults…They’re in a different phase of development, and they’re in a critical phase of brain development.”
He called on policymakers, parents and others to “urgently take action” to safeguard against such possible risks.
Many school districts have already stepped up to the plate and gone to the courts.
In January, Seattle Public Schools became the first district to file a lawsuit against social media companies. It wasn’t alone for long.
On March 13, the San Mateo County School Board filed a federal lawsuit that similarly targeted social media giants like YouTube and TikTok, arguing that their products and algorithms have led to increased anxiety, bullying and depression among young users.
The San Mateo lawsuit represents 23 school districts. So far, 60 school districts in the United States have filed lawsuits aimed at social media behemoths.
It appears to be high time for all schools to take robust action about this situation, in particular, districts such as FUSD, which have introduced programs to promote students’ social and emotional well-being.
Over the past few years, the learning loss that arose due to Covid-19 has received much attention and rightly so. What also urgently needs to be addressed, however, is the learning loss that emerges cumulatively through nonacademic phone use in classrooms.
Filing lawsuits is one way to confront the cellephant, but that approach has a downside: Its benefits most likely won’t be felt for quite a while.
More immediate action could also be taken.
The Bullard model—distributing Yondr locking pouches to students—could be implemented at middle schools and high schools throughout the district. Students at Bullard are instructed to place their phones inside the pouches at the start of the school day and keep them there throughout the school day.
Reports about the effectiveness of this initiative have been mixed but, as one instructor there put it, “I rarely see a phone out in class and that’s the issue we were really trying to solve.”
What else could be done to tame the cellephant in the short term?
“Perhaps the district should really look into blocking the free WiFi access for all but district-approved devices,” another FUSD teacher suggests.
“Maybe that would slow some students down depending on the power of their plan. At present we are…subsidizing poor behavior with universal WiFi availability.”
Ray Bradbury’s “The Murderer,” a story that first appeared in the early 1950s, depicts a world in which inhabitants are swamped with messages from omnipresent devices. Their lives are no longer their own; they’ve been co-opted by technical advances that have gotten out of control.
Nowadays, that message sounds eerily prescient. Yet, even Bradbury failed to foresee the myriad ways in which the young—and, indeed, all of us—can be manipulated and exploited by digital gadgets and the forces that lie behind them.