May 19, 2024
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Yeshiva High Schools Join Together to Limit Student Cell Phone Use: Parents Can Help

A 2021 meta-analysis by Yehuda Wacks and Aviv Feinstein of Ariel University concluded that excessive smartphone use among adolescents “is associated with psychiatric, cognitive, emotional, medical and brain changes that should be considered by health and education professionals.” Educators have heard the call.

Recently, a group of 25 yeshiva high schools from across North America sent a joint letter to their parent bodies announcing their commitment to restrict student cell phone use in their buildings. Each school’s policy will be unique and customized to its clientele, and each will surely encounter pushback from students and some parents. Nevertheless, they are moving ahead. This is the latest move by educators in our communal battle for our children’s social-emotional well-being.

An earlier good-faith effort in the same vein may have inadvertently made matters worse. Several years ago, Bergen County middle schools sent a joint letter to parents asking them to refrain from purchasing cell phones for their children…until fifth grade. While I commended the effort and courage of the school leaders to publicly go on record about this contentious issue, I learned of parents who, in response to this letter, changed their plans and provided their children with phones years earlier than they had planned. I wished at the time that the schools had, at a minimum, exchanged the five for a nine. In fact, I believe that we would all be better off if our children received their first smartphones only after they graduated high school.

I’m sure many people, teens and adults alike, are rolling their eyes at this suggestion. “Boomer,” “Luddite,” and other epithets have been muttered in my direction for years even though I’m generally a tech lover and usually among the first of my peers in the education field to experiment with and adopt technologies when they advance the cause of the classroom. But every honest tech lover knows that smartphones can be dangerous in the hands of our teens.

Smartphones are a tough case because they serve two primary, conflicting functions: productivity and entertainment. On the one hand, smartphones are perhaps the most capable and powerful productivity tools we have ever had at our disposal. On the other hand, smartphones are the most accessible and pernicious entertainment-consumption devices we have ever encountered as a society. When phones are used for productivity, they help us. When they are used for entertainment, they often hurt us, sometimes in ways that aren’t obvious or immediate.

Disclaimer: The following is not meant as a judgment on people’s parenting choices.

I believe it is the case today that the vast majority of students in our North American Modern/Centrist Orthodox yeshiva day schools have smartphones that give them access to entertainment of some kind including video games, TikTok, YouTube, Netflix, sports apps, Instagram, the internet and more. In my view, this is a problem. As the letter from the yeshiva high school heads notes, “[s]tudents spend much of their free time in yeshiva and on trips focused on their phones instead of the in-person interactions that are important for social development.”

To help address the deleterious effects of phones on our children, the yeshiva high schools are now planning to engage in ways they have avoided in the past, perhaps concerned about overdoing their commitment to act “in loco parentis,” the basic duty educators assume when they sign up to care for others’ children “in place of a parent.” Surely the decision about whether to provide a phone to a child and what kind of access that phone has is up to the parents. But parents often feel powerless in the face of the current communal norm, so schools have an important role to play, and they have taken the opportunity to do so more publicly and more unified than ever before.

I believe many parents will be grateful for this partnership since, as many of us know, fighting the “cell phone battle” with our own children can be exhausting at best and damaging to our relationship with them at worst. Even though we as parents know instinctively, anecdotally and from the research that smartphones are bad for our kids, most of us still choose to provide them to our children as soon as (or often before) puberty hits.

To their credit, many parents, with the best of intentions, install filters and time limits on their children’s phones, hoping to digitally fence off their children from the negative elements. However, as any teen will tell you, there’s nothing like a good filter to bring out your child’s latent hacker spirit.

My hope is that the rising generation of parents who are having their first children now will learn from our social experiment and, as a group, hold out on providing cell phones for their children until those children have graduated high school.

In the meantime, I think we should seek a middle ground, since it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to provide our children with a phone-free adolescence (like the one we were privileged to grow up in) in the near term.

First, I hope that all parents will vocally support the yeshiva high schools as they implement their new policies. I hope that parents will talk with their kids about the new phone policies, acknowledging how they will be challenging for our kids, agreeing that phones can be great tools of productivity, but also holding the line that phone use in schools is, in the aggregate, a bad thing. For those parents who don’t agree, I hope that they will privately share their concerns with the school administration and try to work something out for their individual children rather than taking to WhatsApp groups or, worse, openly disparaging the school’s policies in front of their children.

If you are a parent who is considering getting your son a cell phone for the first time or, perhaps, recalibrating how your daughter uses her cell phone in the future, allow me to suggest an approach. This approach is informed by my earlier contention that phones can be powerful tools of productivity and, especially for kids, should not be portals to entertainment.

Our teens will tell us that they “need” a phone in order to communicate and keep track of their schoolwork and social lives. Let’s accept this argument as a starting point. If it’s true, then any of our teens would be well served with the following limited list of apps on their phones, and nothing else:

A phone app (to make phone calls, of course)

WhatsApp

Email

Calendar

Calculator

Camera

Any siddur app

My Zmanim

Notes

Google Maps

Some parents may also want their children to have the following apps:

Uber or Lyft

Strava

Weather

Sefaria

Music, including age-appropriate podcasts (make sure to disable music video playback)

Venmo, Apple/Samsung Pay, or Zelle

That’s it. In total, that’s 10 to 15 apps. Most teens have in excess of 40 apps on their phones, and most of these are for entertainment, not productivity.

Apps that should definitely not be on your child’s phone include:

Games

Media (YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, etc.)

Internet

Sports (ESPN, MLB, NFL, etc.)

Social media (Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter, Reddit, Telegram, Facebook [just kidding, no kids have Facebook anymore], etc.)

Some will say, “But my child needs [fill in the app] for school/chilling out/work.” However, all of these apps can be accessed from an iPad, laptop, or desktop computer and need not live on your child’s phone where the risks outweigh the potential rewards.

It goes without saying that while we are trying to cultivate positive habits in our children, we should be modeling similar behavior. By all means, use your phone for productivity, but don’t use it for entertainment. Unless there’s an urgent need, keep your phone out of sight at the dinner table, don’t take it out in shul and don’t sit on your couch at home scrolling through “content.” A partnership between home and school coupled with widespread changes in communal adult practice will do much to alter the course we’ve put our kids on.


Rabbi Maccabee Avishur serves as the academic dean at Heichal HaTorah in Teaneck.

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