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Classroom Management, Education Trends, Podcast Articles   |   Feb 18, 2024

Does banning phones in school improve students’ mental health?

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Does banning phones in school improve students’ mental health?

By Angela Watson

There has been a significant increase in mental health issues among young people in America since 2012, including anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide attempts, and suicide.

Contrary to popular belief, these trends started before the pandemic, with rates of major depression among teens doubling between 2011 and 2019. Girls and young women are more likely to experience these issues, and the gender gap has been widening.

The introduction of smartphones and social media around 2012 is believed to be a major factor in the decline of mental wellbeing, as it has led to less face-to-face interaction, increased sleep deprivation, and constant exposure to social media.

Dr. Jean Twenge has conducted extensive research in this area. She is a renowned psychologist and scholar who is celebrated for her insightful research on generational trends and the impact of cultural shifts on individuals. Jean is a true researcher, diving into data in her books in a way few authors do. She specializes in generational differences and technology based on a dataset of 39 million people, and has published more than 180 articles and books.

I had the honor of sharing the stage with her a few years back when we both were keynotes for the Learning and the Brain conference in Manhattan, and began devouring her books afterward. The latest is called, Generations: The Real Differences between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers and Silents and What they Mean for America’s Future.

Jean has a deeper understanding of the research around young people and phones than anyone else I’ve encountered, and I knew she was the right person to talk with here about how to support students in healthy tech habits to address the youth mental health crisis.

In our conversation for this article + podcast episode, Jean suggests that technology, particularly social media, is the primary driver of this decline, and that it is important to implement policies that limit phone use during the school day. She emphasizes the need for conversations about healthy phone and screen habits, as well as the importance of setting clear rules and boundaries for phone use.

We talk extensively about getting student and parent buy-in around Jean’s recommendation that cell phones be banned in school from bell-to-bell, including during lunch time and breaks. Jean asserts that the research supports this policy, and emphasizes that it should be school-wide and not left to individual teachers to enforce.

Despite the challenges, we discuss our hopes for Gen Z and what makes Jean optimistic about the future. She encourages educators to take the mental health crisis seriously and understand that it is not just our perception or feeling that something is wrong.

Her challenge is for educators to help students understand the love-hate relationship they have with their phones, and provide structure and clear rules to help them navigate technology in a healthy way.

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Sponsored by Erikson Institute

The role of smartphones in mental wellbeing

ANGELA: So Jean, what does the current research show us about the state of mental health and well-being for young people in America?

DR. JEAN TWENGE: Yeah, unfortunately, the news is not at all good. Since 2012, there have been just enormous increases in anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide attempts, and even suicide among teens and young adults. So it’s not tremendously a surprise to most people that we have a mental health crisis for children and adolescents. But many people say in the next breath though, it’s because of the pandemic.

These trends actually started a good eight years before the pandemic. So major depression among teens, 12 to 17 year olds is a great example. Those rates doubled between 2011 and 2019, so even before the pandemic. So we’ve had this issue growing for quite a long time, and it is at just incredibly high rates. About 20% of teens are experiencing major depression in recent years.

Your research has found that the invention of the smartphone was really the turning point for mental health. How do you make the case that technology is actually the primary driver of the decline in mental well-being rather than other cultural issues?

Well, it’s really a matter of looking at the impact and the timing. So the timing lines up pretty precisely. As I mentioned, teen depression started to increase around 2012. That happens to be the first year the majority of Americans owned a smartphone. It’s also around the same time there was a turning point in social media use among teens — it went from something that about half of teens are doing every day to something almost all we’re doing every day. And it crosses that 75-80% mark right around 2012-2013, and especially for that age group, that’s the point where it starts to go viral because if half of teens are doing something, you can either do it or not. It doesn’t really matter. Once it gets to 75 or 80%, then it’s taking over the culture.

It’s also around the same time, we started to see a big decline in teens spending time with each other, face-to-face in person with friends as opposed to online communication. And it’s also around the same time that sleep deprivation began to increase among teens. So you put that together — less sleep, less time with friends in person, and more time online — that’s a pretty poor recipe for mental health, and most people would agree that that doesn’t sound like a great way to promote mental health and happiness among teens.

So then there’s the matter of ruling out alternative explanations, and it’s really difficult to think of anything else that happened during that time period that occurred at that time, kept going in the same direction, upward, over decades, just as the decade of the 2010s, just as teen depression did. And that had such an enormous impact on the day-to-day lives of teens that it wasn’t something that happened to their parents or that they read about in the news, but technology completely changed the way that teens spent their time outside of school.

So most alternative explanations don’t hold up when you hold them to those two standards. The increase in teen depression is completely misaligned with economic trends because the US economy was finally starting to improve after the Great Recession around 2012, that’s when it was coming out of it. It’s tough to think of anything that happened around that time, around 2012, early 2010s, and they kept going in the same direction.

That’s especially true because these trends aren’t just in the US. They’re international. There’s been an increase in teen anxiety in 40 countries around the world in a recent study, and there’s been an increase in feelings of loneliness at school in 37 countries around the world. And that data set in particular was very broad. It had Europe, it had Asia, it had Latin America, and there was a correspondence too between the introduction of more internet time and those increases in loneliness at school. So that rules out a lot of US-based explanations like political changes or school shootings because that increase in loneliness and anxiety occurred internationally as well.

The impact of social media on youth mental health

So this is happening basically everywhere in the world that internet and particularly smartphone use has increased. It’s not specific to America. What is it about smartphones in particular that is different from televisions or other screens?

Well, smartphones can be carried everywhere. So they can interfere with social situations. They can interfere with learning at school or social interaction during lunch period. Even when teens get together with their friends in person outside of school, they have the phone on them and then they can interfere with that process.

I don’t want the focus just to be on the smartphone because it’s also on the apps, social media in particular, which is designed to keep people using it as long as possible and for as many hours as possible then to get back on it as often as possible because that’s how the companies make the most money. So it’s very, very difficult even for adults to stay off social media, much less teens where developmentally just because of their friend relationships, and with the development of self-control, it’s just harder for them to log off of social media. And we know that the more hours a day a teen spends on social media, the more likely it is that he or she will be depressed. So there’s clearly a link here, and it seems to be among all of the things that people do on screens, the one with the biggest link to depression.

That makes sense to me because all screen time is not created equal. My phone reports to me how much time I’m spending on it, and sometimes it shows a big increase, but I was listening to an audio audiobook while I was going for a walk or I was using a navigation app for a long trip. So there are useful and healthier ways to use phones that are less damaging, and social media for me, personally, has the biggest impact on my mental health.

And it’s especially true for teens and especially teen girls. And we also know that kids and younger teens, that’s where the link to depression is the strongest. So that’s why I and many other people are starting to advocate for the minimum age for social media to be raised to 16 and actually enforced.

Yeah, I’m really happy to see that because as recently as I think five years ago, it was really common for educational leaders and district leaders to encourage the use of smartphones in class at school. So it was seen just a few years ago, I think as inevitable students would be on their devices. We could not stop them. This was just something that was going to be part of the cultural zeitgeist. So teachers might as well embrace that. And more recently, I have seen this cultural tide start shifting. I’ve seen so many states bringing lawsuits against Meta, for example, for creating these addictive apps for kids, and I think more people are becoming aware of the harm that this can cause. And I’m noticing in education, there are more experts who are now recommending school-wide bans on phones during the instructional day, and the schools that I have seen who have done this as a collective policy.

So rather than relying on individual teachers to make their own rules about their classrooms and then enforce those rules and take away students’ phones, which creates a power struggle. When they do it as a collective school-wide policy, they have reported really positive outcomes not only with learning, but also in the amount of support that they’ve gotten from parents and eventually from students themselves who tend to be resistant from it at first, but then they realize that it’s actually sort of a relief from knowing my peers are not online. I’m not missing out on anything. I don’t have to be distracted by what people might be saying about me or posting about me online. None of us are online during these hours, and so it’s been really, really popular, but I think it’s still a little early to see what are the long-term effects from this. So I’m wondering, based on your research and experience, what are your recommendations for school and classroom policies around tech use and students’ personal devices?

Well, I think it should be very simple. No phones during the school day bell to bell. So having no phones available during instructional time is extremely important. That is the number one priority, but it’s even better when they’re also not available during lunch period because then students talk to each other, and that’s important for a bunch of reasons, one of which is they really need to develop social skills.

This is what I hear from managers. I hear, “I like Gen Z for a lot of reasons, but I’m surprised at how many will not look me in the eye, and they don’t have the social skills we need them to have for the jobs that we’re going to be hiring for because if that phone’s available, then you get, a lot of times, kids in a group and they’re all on their phones or they’re talking to each other, but then one will pull out the phone.”

That’s called phubbing, by the way. It’s a combination of phone and snubbing. Adults experience this as well. It’s one of those things that everybody hates, but everybody does it. And especially among younger teens when they’re talking to their friend and their friend pulls out the phone, the look on their faces, it’s hurtful. Even if their friends are doing it for a legitimate reason or seems like a legitimate reason in the moment, it feels like a rejection. And so that’s what we really need to move away from.

And then if it’s the whole school day, then kids also get the practice of being away from their phones for six and a half hours during the school day of learning how to live without it for that time. And then they get around that automatic reach for the phone and kind of that twitchy feeling. It may take a few days or weeks, but that feeling of like, I got to be on the phone and I have to be looking at it, and if I’m not looking at it, what’s happening on it — it’s extremely distracting.

So I’ll say I never really understood that previous argument of, “Oh, they’re going to do it anyway.” It’s the flip of what parents used to say, “Well, if all of your friends jumped off the cliff, would you jump off?” Why don’t we still say that because? It’s true. Really, we’re just going to say, “Oh, they can do whatever they want.” I mean, it seems similar to me of saying that back when I was in high school in the eighties, they would have allowed kids to bring TVs to school, and just walk in with that TV under their arm and just watch it during class whenever they want, which is effectively what you’re doing when you allow the phone.

And look, I know that there’s exceptions that sometimes have to be made for certain medical conditions and special needs and so on. These are important, but as the general rule, when it’s universal, when it’s during the whole school day, it just makes it easier for everybody. Then the rules are very clear. Instead of these kinds of squishy rules that a lot of schools have like, Okay, kids can take out their phones, but only for instructional purposes, how are you going to enforce that? If you’re an individual teacher, then as you mentioned, you’re going to be spending a lot of instructional time policing this, and then you have to get into a power struggle about whether I take away the phone.

Even if you have the system of the phone pouches, then what’s to stop a kid from getting up and grabbing their phone out of the pouch and then during passing periods and lunch period, they’re not talking to each other and they’re still feeling that twitchy feeling of, I’m going to get back on my phone.

But if those phones are in some safe location during the school day, or if you use technology like the yonder pouches that could be locked and then they unlock at a certain time, whatever logistical way you figure out to get around these issues, bell to bell is the way to do it because then it’s very, very clear everybody is doing it. So there’s not the worry that somebody’s going to take out their phone when I’m talking to you. And then we have the preserved time for social skills and for instructional time.

I feel like a lot of adults have not really reckoned with how immersive a phone experience is. And I’m thinking about a situation in which a student is allowed to take out their phone at lunch or in between classes, as if you could just open up Snapchat or open up a group chat or TikTok or whatever, and just engage for one minute, and then your brain can just immediately focus on learning again. And I think there’s just such a misunderstanding of how attention spans work, how focus works, how the neuroscience of learning works to think that that could be possible, particularly for young people whose brains are not fully developed yet.

Exactly. I mean — most adults know this and it’s even more for teens and kids — that you get online and then you can look up and 20 minutes have passed or two hours have passed. It’s particularly true of TikTok. TikTok has a very, very sticky algorithm. The purpose of those apps is to keep people on them for as long as humanly possible. They’ve poured billions into algorithms that make sure that that happens.

So it’s very tempting to say, Okay, I’m going to go on my phone and I’m only going to be on for one minute. But then it sucks you in, and then even after you do manage to put it down, then you have to get back to focus again. And so this is, as you’re referring to, the work that for one thing we have to disabuse everybody — parents, students, everyone of the notion that you can multitask, the human brain cannot actually multitask.

It is not possible. I mean, think about if you’re on the phone and someone else starts talking to you, you can’t listen to both of those conversations at the same time. It’s not possible. So you can’t really focus on the social media on your phone and what your teacher is saying or what your friend is saying next to you at the lunch table. So you have to switch that attention back and forth, and it takes time to switch that attention. I know there’s a lot of Gen Zers who are like, Oh, but we’ve learned how to do it faster. Well, you haven’t learned how to do it instantaneously, and your brain still can’t multitask because it’s just physically not able to do so. That’s the other reason I think just getting [phones] completely out of the picture is the best idea.

Right? It’s not multitasking. It’s actually task-switching and going back and forth. You’re losing time.


How can teachers support healthy tech habits?

What can teachers do to support students in building healthy phone, screen, and social media habits?

I think having conversations about these things is very helpful. And I think my sense, this is my view, and I know there may be disagreement, is that we probably need to move away from this model of at least the way it’s sometimes done of digital citizenship. Let’s just tell them to be careful and to think about it.

Well, when we’re talking about 11-year-olds, let’s tell them not to be on social media at all. Because they’re not supposed to be actually under the law. [Age] 13 is supposed to be the minimum age plus 13 is the worst time to introduce social media during middle school — who thought of that? And it was a compromise with the tech companies. It wasn’t for any developmental reason.

So really, this is just not a good idea, and it might be a good thing to talk about how do you feel when you’ve spent two hours scrolling through Instagram for those who do that? And then how do you feel if you spent even 20 minutes hanging out with a friend of yours in person? I mean, there’s no comparison.

And kids, they know that. It’s just they’re struggling against the billions of dollars poured into these algorithms and their own developmental stage of wanting to stay in touch with their friends all the time. So I think we have to have these discussions and lay down some guardrails of if you’re 12 or under, the law says you’re actually not supposed to be on social media at all, and why might that be and why do we have that rule?

Then even more applicable in the classroom is just getting across that information about how you can’t multitask, how that’s not a thing. And then anytime you get kids and teens talking about phubbing and someone else taking out their phone when they’re talking, you get a lot of emotion coming out and they know how much that’s a terrible situation. They just hate it, yet they still do it because it’s just so hard to put it down.

Addressing parental concerns

What do you think is the role of teachers in responding to parents about this? Because I feel like at this particular moment in time, there can be a lot of divisiveness in terms of, ”I’m the parent of my child. I have the right to choose how my child is educated, and you can’t tell me what to do.” And yet, if educators know that the research points to no phones bell to bell is the right policy, what can we do to get this message across to parents?

My understanding is that they are often the biggest obstacle in this. As much as I hate to pit teachers against parents,  often the students are more supportive of the policy than parents, because parents are worried that there’s going to be an emergency during the day. There could be, sadly, some sort of tragic shooter in the building or in the community. There could be something that goes wrong in the family, and they feel like, “I pay for this phone so that I can reach my child and know where they are at any given time. Who are you to tell me that I can’t reach my child if there’s an emergency?” What can schools do to address that kind of mentality, which I think has a lot of validity to it?

Well, I have heard the same thing with students — there’s sometimes some initial pushback, but then when they hear that it’s going to be everybody, then they come on board because they feel the stress around their phones. And when it’s more of a group thing, then they will often come around to this idea that often the pushback is from parents. So what I have heard is effective are two things.

First, to reassure parents that if they do need to get in touch with their child for some important reason, then they can send a message, they can call the office, and then that message will get to their student. You have to have the conversation about what’s actually important. Because I’ve heard from a lot of school leaders that when they ask parents, Well, why do you need to get in touch with your child during the day? They’ll say things like, Oh, I need to ask him what he wants for dinner. Really.

And just for context, I have three kids myself, they’re 17, 14, and 11, and I have that urge sometimes too, to think, Oh, I want to know what to plan for dinner. I need to know this. And I’m like, wait, they’re in school and we can have this conversation later. But I understand that urge. It’s just you have to tamp that down.

But yes, if it’s important, they can be reached. So then there’s a difficult issue, as you mentioned, of emergencies and school shootings and so on. So what I understand from school safety experts is that it is actually less safe for students to each have their own phone and have access to that phone during an active shooter situation because then that phone is a distraction away from instructions on what to do, and it can also go off and make noise and alert the shooter to where students are.

Yeah, that feels like important research that we could share with parents to kind of get them more on board with this. I mean, it’s sad that we have to even discuss that. Of course, there’s a lot of darkness and heaviness to this topic.

Hopeful signs for the future of Gen Z

So I want to ask about something that is giving you hope for the future. What is something that’s making you feel optimistic about the ability of Gen Z to rise to the challenges that they’re facing and harness tech in more positive ways?

Yeah, there’s a couple things. So one is that there are Gen Z adults who are now advocating for some of these changes that we’ve been discussing. There’s a couple of advocacy groups out there founded by some very young Gen Z individuals, one is Emma Lembke. She started this when she was a 19-year-old college student because of her negative experiences with Instagram when she was younger. And I think that’s so valuable because this is the generation who grew up with these technologies.

They know what it’s like to have an Instagram page at the age of 12, and older generations don’t understand that that is not their lived experience. So I think it’s extremely encouraging that there are young people who are speaking out on this issue because we need their leadership. We need to hear from them, and that gives me a lot of hope.

The other thing is just stuff from the big surveys that I analyze on young people, that more young people are saying they want jobs that are helpful to others, that more of them are tolerant of people from every background and experience, that they are expressing this desire to make the world a better place and to help others.

There’s a lot of negativity in this generation, and if it goes in that direction of them trying to make things better, that’ll be such an enormous benefit for what looks like a downside. What I’m afraid of is that that negativity is nihilism, of there’s nothing we can do, and it’s just all terrible. So I think that’s one of our biggest challenges as a society, as educators, as parents, is to try to harness that negativity of young people in a positive and constructive direction.

What’s something that you wish every teacher understood about supporting their students through the different challenges, the tech challenges, the mental health challenges that Gen Z is facing?

Well, I think it is important to know that this mental health crisis is real, that it started before the pandemic, and that it’s not just an illusion and it’s not just, for example, the idea that, Oh, teens today are more willing to admit to their problems. If that’s all it was, we would not expect to see changes in behaviors linked to mental health, things like self-harm and suicide attempts.

And unfortunately, we have, these are objectively measured behaviors, and they have also just skyrocketed in the last 10 to 12 years. So these are real shifts. We have to take them seriously. We can’t dismiss them by saying that kids are overly sensitive or that they’re snowflakes. I hate seeing that framing, especially as a psychologist, because I think it’s too much of a cover and a judgment for what are really serious mental health problems.

I think the other thing that is important for people to know if they’re working with young people is that a lot of young people have a love-hate relationship with their phone, not just the love relationship. They don’t want their phone taken away for any length of time longer than a day. They’re very afraid of that because they’re very attached to their phones as a security blanket. On the other hand, they know full well that they shouldn’t be on them so much. They just don’t know how to put those guardrails on.

And I think that is the good news that adults can put those guardrails on, and children, even teens, respond well to structure and clear rules. So if we can help them do that, then they can get what’s good out of the phone and then put it away at the times when it needs to be out of the picture during the school day and when they’re sleeping.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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  1. Loved this and sharing it with co-workers, admin, friends and parents. What about the watches? I don’t have the phones in my room, but many kids have watches and you can see the twitch.

    1. Yes! I really want an answer to this as well. I don’t feel like smart watches should be allowed. They have cameras (privacy concerns?) and can text or call. Some parents specifically request that students have one in case there is an emergency, but in that situation security officers say that they shouldn’t have them.

      1. Great question, and I’m not sure of the answer. Technically I’d think those would be included in cell-phone free zones, as they’re cause the same continuous impartial attention as cell phones do.

  2. It’s discouraging that Dr. Twenge doesn’t address how a school-wide ban would be implemented. I teach in an area where gang violence is a reality. We have kept gang activity out of our school through years of concerted effort, but the violence still goes on in the community. The gangs are kept out because the parents want it that way and the school district puts in the funding, personnel and instructional time to make it happen.

    It’s good that there is solid research that shows that students should not have access to their phones at all in school. How do we implement that? Nobody ever tried to say that gangs are good for schools, it’s a no-brainer to get staff, parents and students united to keep them out.

    We have teachers who can’t stay off their phones and families who have lost children to violence. What would a cell-phone ban in our district look like? What resources would it take to persuade leadership that it’s a good idea AND to commit the resources to persuading staff, familes and students to agree to this ban, and to commit the resources to creating and sustaining the ban?

    That is the next step in this process.

    1. I think your questions are important ones to consider for sure. The “how” of a ban definitely relies on students being compliant, ie keeping their phones in backpacks or a designated safe place willingly. I’d like to do more research on how this works practically, but every teacher I’ve heard from whose school has done this says kids do comply as a whole. When the reasons and new policy are explained, students resist at first, but it becomes their new normal very quickly and they adapt.

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