On my first day as a high school teacher in Brooklyn, I passed through the front door metal detectors and climbed the crowded stairwells to the fifth floor. I was to report to room 526 where I would be substituting for a Physics teacher who, the day before, had asked a student to put away his Walkman. The student responded by stabbing the teacher in the hand with a pencil.
I was handed a Physics book and I began my slow, nervous walk down the paint-peeled fifth floor hall. As my mind filled with visions of a No. 2 Dixon Ticonderoga being jammed into my person, I realized I had already adopted my first teaching-relating philosophy: I was strongly against gadgets in school. But, at least on that first day in room 526, I had no intention of being part of the enforcement process.
Back then, cassette players were the only gadgets teachers really had to worry about. Today, students walk onto campus equipped with an arsenal of connected devices from iPhones to laptops. According to the latest numbers from Pew, three quarters of all teens own a cell phone, and almost all of them regularly exchange text messages with friends. While many adults complain they can’t get anything more out of their teen than the occasional eye-rolling shoulder shrug, active teen texters are rattling off a cool 1500 text messages a month.
Most schools have rules against texting in class while others have adopted school-wide cell phone bans. But even when bans are in place, more than half of the teens surveyed said they manage to send off an occasional text message from a classroom. And if you’re wowed by the today’s teens and the way they fire their machine gun thumbs at tiny keyboards, just wait. Their younger siblings are already training to smash the current texting pace. Twenty percent of kids between the ages of 6 and 11 have their own cell phones.
From my perspective as a former Brooklyn high school teacher, I can see how hard it would be to compete for classroom attention when the students have a pocketful of friends, music, videos, games and incoming text messages.
From my perspective as a parent, the issue is not quite so simple. While I am hesitant to willingly enable my children to follow too closely in my iPhone-zombie footsteps, I am attracted by the prospect of always keeping them within seven digits in case of emergency.
This always-on connection between parent and child can put a parent’s mind at ease, but I’m not certain it’s beneficial to the development of the child. Digital devices tend to blur the important line that separates parents from kids during the school day. At my son’s preschool, the teachers regularly take digital photos and then share them with parents. I used to sit on the couch and watch those online slide shows with my son. It was almost like I was there. And that’s the problem. My son’s awareness that I could see him in this environment infringed on the fundamental purpose of his preschool experience — to be in a place that was completely separate from his mom and me.
For a preschooler, the digital camera makes it seem like I’m almost there at school. For a teenager, the smart phone will do the same. Add that to the phone-based social and media distractions that will be a constant source of temptation, and I could easily make the argument against giving my son a cell phone for as long possible. But I’m not going to kid myself. The trend towards younger kids owning cell phones will only accelerate and that social reality along with my (real or perceived) need to be connected to my son will likely overpower any philosophical concerns I may have.
But I do hope that I can convince my then teenage son to break from his dad’s addicted ways and occasionally experience the glory of a disconnected life. I figure by that time, the worst thing that could happen is my avatar getting stabbed in the virtual hand with a pencil shaped cursor.