Opinion: Let’s stop the bully in our students’ pockets

By BILL PRIBIS

Published: 10-31-2023 5:00 PM

Bill Pribis of Concord is a former trial lawyer and a current English teacher.

You’re the parent of a student who is being bullied at school. Your child comes home, doesn’t speak to you, goes to their room and shuts the door. They are sad, hopeless, and at the same time irritable. They have no energy. Their sports, hobbies and friends, the things that once brought them joy, no longer do so. They barely eat. They are suffering from anxiety. They can’t sleep at night. Their grades are poor. Maybe they start using drugs or alcohol. Their lives are becoming a living hell, all because of this bully they have to face at school every day.

What do you do? Many parents would move heaven and earth to help their children. They would be on the school’s administration like white on rice, demanding something be done. They would be in touch with their child’s teachers. They might get the legal system or law enforcement involved. They might take advantage of the formal process that New Hampshire law provides to address bullying.

Now let’s indulge in a bit of magical thinking. What if the bully’s behavior was solely triggered by a favorite wristwatch your child wore every day? What if you could end your child’s torment by simply having them keep their watch at home? Yes, they might be sad to not have something they love at school with them. And yes, they might suffer some inconvenience when they need to know what time it is. But I think that if the solution to getting your child’s life back (and possibly even saving their life) were as simple as leaving the watch at home, just about every parent would say “That’s a no brainer.”

Over the years, people have suspected and speculated that big tech companies are designing their platforms in manners that are addictive and destructive to the mental health of our young students. This claim has now moved past suspicion and speculation and into the realm of scientific fact. And it is now the official position of the State of New Hampshire as expressed by our attorney general.

In connection with the recent lawsuit New Hampshire has filed against Meta (aka Instagram and Facebook), Attorney General John Formella states that Meta, using the same tactics that “Big Tobacco” used a generation ago, designs its platforms to be addictive to children. According to Formella, Meta is turning our children into social media addicts. It is doing so knowing that this leads to ‘...increased instances of serious health problems such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia.” A company that preys on the vulnerable and that doesn’t care that doing so is ruining the lives of its victims? Sounds a lot like a bully to me.

Let’s face it. Meta is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many apps, games, platforms, networks and other “big tech” products that are doing exactly what Meta is doing: destroying our children’s mental health for profit. And how do these companies deliver their poison? Through our young people’s phones, of course.

The people charged with protecting our children and students need to do something about this. The lawsuit against Meta is a start. But our experience with tobacco and opioids teaches that this is hardly a solution. The lawsuit will take years to resolve. It will likely resolve by settlement. That settlement will involve Meta paying a bunch of money to New Hampshire that will be used to treat the victims, our children, after the harm has been done. Meta will just pass that cost on to its customers. Maybe Meta will be required to put some sort of warning label on its products. And in the meantime, it’s business as usual and our students and children continue to pay the price.

I’m not saying don’t sue Meta. Indeed, sue the pants off them! It certainly can’t hurt the horrible status quo and it might, someday, improve things. But our education policymakers — our Department of Education, our legislators, our school boards and our school administrators — can implement a far more timely, simple, and effective measure to protect our students. So can parents.

Ban phones in schools. Take away the delivery system by which Meta and its ilk are foisting their poison upon our students. Give our children a big chunk of time every day when they are free from the bully that is literally in their pockets. Unlike our magical watch in the hypothetical above, this is real. Our students can free themselves from the Meta-bully at school by simply leaving their phones at home.

Most schools have cell phone policies that allow students to have their phones in school but that purport to restrict their use during academic times. I’ve experienced these policies at multiple locations. Trust me. They don’t work.

These phones are not a mere diversion or distraction. They are an addiction. Imagine having a bunch of students who are heroin addicts. You tell them that they are free to keep their drugs and needles with them in a backpack that they carry with them wherever they go. They just aren’t allowed to shoot up. That would be ridiculous, of course. That addict will be doing whatever they possibly can to sneak in a “fix” every chance they get. Yet that is exactly analogous to what we are doing with our students and their phones under most schools’ current cell phone policies.

And consider things from a teacher’s perspective. You are being asked to teach a roomful of 30 addicts whose fix is literally in their pockets. You are told that it’s your job to make sure that those addicts don’t try to get their fix but instead focus on the lessons you are teaching. How do you think that’s going to work out? How conducive is that to an optimal learning environment?

Will banning phones cause some inconvenience? Sure. But I am not engaging in hyperbole here. Science, and our own government officials, are telling us that these phones are being used to deliver an addictive product that is destroying our students’ mental health. I can tell you from personal experience that these phones are an incredibly significant impediment to our students’ education. Is that a price worth paying just so a parent can have the convenience of contacting their student directly rather than leaving a message with the school?

It is not. Legislators, school boards, school administrators, parents and anyone else who cares about our students and our education system: Give our students a fighting chance against these mega-tech companies that are destroying their mental health and their fundamental right to a good education. Ban phones in schools.