Five months ago, I addressed the Newport-Mesa Unified School District Board of Trustees on the subject of teen cell phone addiction, which has been identified as a major challenge in the U.S.  This challenge has been supported by research showing that:

  • Half of all teenagers feel “addicted” to their phone
  • 78 percent of teens check their phones at least hourly
  • Teens who spend five or more hours per day on their devices are 71 percent more likely to have one risk factor for suicide, like depression or suicidal ideation.(Clinical Psychological Science)

That could spell big trouble for teens. Or, perhaps not.

When I spoke to the board in January, my research was thorough and my comments and urging were sincere. Since then, however, I have made a complete U-turn on the subject and believe now that teen cell phone addiction does not exist.

The reasons for the reversal are based on more research, some documented, some not, and my personal experience from having lived for 63 years.

Asking the experts

A couple of months ago – three, maybe? – I asked two questions of a small group of people whose opinions I respect. This group includes three PhDs, one person with two MBAs, and a few others whose intelligence is not reflected in advanced degrees – they’re just smart.

The questions were:

1) If in 20 years, everyone is using their phones as much as teens are today, do we in fact have a teen cell phone addiction problem at this time?

The unanimous reply was “no.”

2) Can you foresee a time when everyone is as dependent on their phones as teens are today?

The unanimous reply was “yes.”

What we are witnessing is not teen cell phone addiction, but a massive group of people who are previewing the future. Just as mankind moved from the grunt to the spoken word to the printed word, to the telegram, telephone, television, fax, e-mail, etc. (and on and on), we are now witnessing the latest evolution in communication.

Just as most of us did not fully understand what those past communication tools meant at those precise moments, most of us are unable to understand teen phone use vis-a-vis its place in communications evolvement.  In fact, many people reading this will scoff and point to a teen they know as anecdotal evidence of a major problem.

What has happened

In conversations with some of the members of the polling group, we discussed the distinct possibility that

  • The process of reading to gain knowledge may be all but obsolete at some point
  • Future generations will not need to have the extent of today’s vocabulary
  • Future generations will not need to know how to spell correctly

In the future, our children will be communicating through bite-sized bits of language whose vocabulary will be limited to a few hundred words, down from the 42,000 known by the average 20-year-old American.

This reduction will be driven in part by their decreasing interest in history. This is already occurring: A recent poll revealed that 40 percent of millenials are unaware that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust and two-thirds did not know what Auschwitz is. Fourteen percent of teens surveyed thought that we celebrate Independence Day to recognize our independence from France.

Are they stupid? Not necessarily. These young people may be telling us now what their priorities will be in the years to come and for the generations to follow.

What to do

The worst reaction is to declare this a major catastrophe and throw lots of money at research and counseling in order to fix the problem. But that is exactly what is happening. Schools have cell phone-free areas and times and some schools are banning them outright, which, for many teens, only makes them want to spend more time on their phones. There is a lot of hand-wringing and chin-stroking, all of which will lead to more of the wrong type of responses.

It’s a waste of time and resources and will only stall the inevitable, that being the start of an era in which all humans in developed countries will be communicating as teens are now. That form of communication may even be two steps beyond what we are now witnessing.

And readers, that is OK.

What the education establishment needs to do now is embrace the concept I have just explained and adapt teaching methods accordingly. Instead of banning phones, make them an integral part of the education process. (The Chromebooks that schools are handing out today like Halloween candy will be dinosaurs tomorrow. I am as sure of this as I am that the sun will rise in the morning.)

Most adults cannot see this evolution because they are too hung up on the past. Their memory of what has been done before and what worked for them and their generation has created a blind spot that is affecting the academic achievement of a growing number of students. What the education establishment needs now are people who understand what is happening and can develop the curricula and tools to meet this new way of communicating.

We are witnessing this inability to meet the demands of a new process right here in Southern California where the brand new LAUSD superintendent of schools announced some ambitious but vague program to make all students “college ready.”

Not only is this lofty goal unachievable, it is misguided. As our communication processes evolve the way I have described, the value of a college education will diminish. That is already happening. Other societal changes besides the communication evolution will change the higher learning education process. too.

I understand that this is a lot to fathom. And it’s harder to understand for those of us who want things to be the way they used to be because that is what we know and what worked for us.

The first thing to recognize is that these devices we call “phones” are not used by teens as phones. Once we understand that teens have declared that this is their preferred method of communication – now, and for a long time in the future – we will stop using a sledgehammer to prevent a problem that doesn’t even exist.

Teens are talking to us about this now. They may not express their preference verbally, but we can “hear” them by the way they have embraced the new communication options. And let’s be honest: There are plenty of adults who spend just as much time or more on their devices as teens.

The only difference is that adults will claim to have some justification that is beyond the reach of teens.

Teens are talking to us about this now but few are listening.

Steve Smith