Smartphones, Safety, and School Life

During our Back-to-School Night gatherings, I shared with parents some of my thoughts about smartphones for younger children and social media in general. I want to offer some further thoughts here. These are not issues that are unique to Colorado Academy, but are rather part of larger trends that we have all observed. I truly have empathy for parents as they grapple with these issues; there are no easy answers. These issues affect the health and well-being of our students. Ultimately, we want our students to be safe and to learn to use technology responsibly.

Poor decision making around smartphones and online content can result in significant consequences, not only in terms of the school’s disciplinary system, but also in terms of potential legal exposure. Smartphones give students unprecedented access to the adult world. This can include pornography, as well as all kinds of racism and hate. While each family has to make its own decisions about when to give a child access and how to monitor it, it is important for me to share some of the issues we confront every year, and for you to be aware that we have had students make decisions that can lead to expulsion from CA. 

Largely because of the pandemic and the reliance students had on social media to sustain their relationships, we have confronted a number of major disciplinary issues that involve smartphone use and technology. These have included students gaining access to racist jokes and memes and sharing them on campus. (A word of caution: If your child is on the app Discord or playing multiplayer video games, they may be entering a world of racism, anti-semistism, homophobia, and misogyny.) 

I am not really writing about older students, but rather younger students who have little idea of the context and the impact of this type of material. High school students can barely handle this technology themselves, but from my experience, giving a person under the age of 14 a smartphone is creating an opportunity for bad decision making, as well as opening a door to potential mental health issues around anxiety, body image, and relationships.  

One might ask, “Mike, maybe the school needs to do more in terms of education about these matters?” The answer is that we already do so much in this area proactively; doing more would begin to impact other essential parts of our curriculum. Ultimately, it is up to parents to do more to talk about these issues with your child and with other parents. 

One thing I learned from working at a boarding school is that “nothing good happens after midnight.” Restricting access to smartphones at night is critical. But, after reading this, I would encourage you to have a deeper conversation with your child. During the Cold War, the phrase “trust but verify” characterized our relationship with the USSR. We can teach our children what not to do…. But the need to fit in, the normal inclination to experiment, hormones, and that not-fully-formed frontal lobe can scramble a young person’s sense of right and wrong. I would encourage you to be vigilant, as there can be much at stake for your child.

Every year, I hear from parents of upper elementary and Middle School students who grudgingly give their child a smartphone because they are worried about their child being socially isolated or excluded. One might take a step back and think about whether it is actually important that their child be “popular” at that age. As someone who held back until Grade 7 before giving my kids phones, I am certain I helped them avoid getting in trouble and stay out of some nasty social media interactions. And they still had friends. There are watches that have phone-like features for parents to stay in touch, and there are always flip phones.

Our job is to support students as they make mistakes. But we would rather work with students on their learning and their academics than track down who texted mean things to another student or manage off-campus behavior. I know you as parents want the same. Trust me, we are all trying to raise children in challenging times. Thank you for considering these thoughts and recommendations. Again, each family needs to make their own decisions, but I think it is important for us all to be reminded how smartphone use can negatively impact life at school.