Are smart phones killing young minds?
Bonus: The 'Gray Lady' afflicted by 'intellectual rot'
It’s unmistakable to anyone who’s paying attention. Smart phones are addictive for many of us, especially for young people who are trying (or not) to get an education. Since there are few who question the premise (aside from Apple and Google), the real question is what, if anything, should be done about it?
A piece published this week by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, It Sure Looks Like Phones Are Making Students Dumber (free link on MSN.com), has sparked renewed interest in the subject. Thompson as taken another look at the data and drew the same conclusion that’s been obvious to most educators for the last 10 years.
Thompson found that researchers have documented “that various measures of student well-being began a sharp decline around 2012 throughout the West, just as smartphones and social media emerged as the attentional centerpiece of teenage life.” It was also around that time that smartphone penetration hit 50%.
The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) found last year that U.S. students scored lower in math than at anytime since the beginning of the PISA test 20 years ago. That loss accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, but of course scores had been dropping for years before that. Nevertheless:
… PISA finds that students who spend less than one hour of “leisure” time on digital devices a day at school scored about 50 points higher in math than students whose eyes are glued to their screens more than five hours a day. This gap held even after adjusting for socioeconomic factors. For comparison, a 50-point decline in math scores is about four times larger than America’s pandemic-era learning loss in that subject.
Heavy cell phone use also seems to correlate with what Thompson calls the “youth anxiety crisis” — so named because mental health professionals have found that the number of young people who report feeling anxiety and depression is at all-time highs.
As I wrote in a CTNewsJunkie column in October, several European nations have enacted school cell phone bans and the gains have been undeniable.
In Spain, bullying was reduced and academic performance has improved. In Norway, cell phone bans in middle school correlated with improved grades and test scores, along with increased likelihood of attending an advanced high school.
Thomson appeared yesterday on Morning Joe to elaborate on his piece. Click on the image below to view the video:
As the Bloomberg News editorial board put it, “[The bans] also yielded bigger academic improvements than far more expensive policies, such as reducing class sizes or putting more computers in schools.”
I realize that public school bans on cell phone usage during the academic day would entail some blowback from students and parents who are concerned that they might not be able to reach each another in an emergency. But what did schools do before mobile phones? Parents called the office and, if it was an emergency, the child was pulled out of class. Given America’s obsession with local control of public education, it would probably be wiser for states to simply incentivize schools to enact the bans rather than requiring it through legislation.
The 'Gray Lady' suffers 'intellectual rot'
There are many good reasons why the New York Times has long been regarded as the gold standard of journalism. You could start with statistics. As the Times boasts on its website, the paper has won 132 Pulitzer Prizes since 1918, more than any other media outlet. Over the course of its 172 years, the paper’s coverage and commentary have achieved a status and influence that is the envy of every newspaper in the world.
But longtime readers such as yours truly have noticed a change, especially in the last dozen or so years. From all appearances, the newsroom has become infected with a group-think mentality, resulting in a stifling sense of conformity and a mission that goes beyond informing its audience to … well, something else.
To be clear, I’m talking about the Times’ news coverage of domestic policy and politics and, to a degree, its editorial and opinion department. Coverage of foreign affairs remains strong and comparatively impartial. Ditto business and technology, for the most part. As for sports, that’s been outsourced to The Athletic and access to it entails an extra cost, so I haven’t even looked at it for months and probably never will again.
The reason I write about this subject today is a recent essay in The Economist by James Bennet, the former editorial page editor for the Times. Bennet, you might recall, was the editor who approved the publication of an op-ed by conservative Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Oklahoma calling for the invocation of the Insurrection Act and the use of troops to quell riots, and protect innocent people and businesses in the wake of riots prompted by the 2020 death of George Floyd, who was brutalized by Minneapolis police.
Bennet says he got the go-ahead to publish the piece from Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger. Nevertheless, an uproar ensued in the newsroom, where reporters took the Twitter to offer sharp criticism of Bennet’s decision. The union representing reporters and editors issued a statement asserting that Cotton’s piece presented “a clear threat to the health and safety of the journalists we represent.” More than 1,000 Times staffers also signed a letter protesting the publication of the op-ed.
Really? Sorry, but Times war correspondents covering the Middle East have to worry about their “health and safety” as part of their jobs every day. So does NBC’s Richard Engel, who along with his crew was kidnapped 11 years ago in Syria and held in captivity by armed militants for five days. Taking offense at an op-ed by a right-wing politician ranks somewhere between a mosquito bite and a headache.
Three days later (and evidently without much explanation), Sulzberger called Bennet and demanded his resignation. This is what it came to: reporters rebelled when the opinion section published an op-ed that ran counter to the prevailing politics in the newsroom. Bear in mind that in almost all newspapers, including the Times, there is supposed to be a “wall of separation” between the newsroom and the editorial/op-ed pages so that the public can rest assured that the editorial page does not exert undue influence on news coverage.
Bennet characterized the monoculture at the Times as “illiberal bias,” using the root word “liberal” in its classical sense, not its more contemporary political analogue. It may be that senior management at the Times is fine with the monoculture. And I have a possible explanation.
Twenty years ago, advertising revenue accounted for the overwhelming majority of the Times’ revenues, with classified ads providing the lion’s share. This was true for virtually every print newspaper. But that model collapsed with the disruption of the classified ads site craigslist and similar platforms.
Last year the Times generated 67% of its revenues from subscriptions. Such a shift is bound to alter content. Much of the content in newspapers — the style, automotive and real estate sections, for example — was produced to please advertisers.
So now the emphasis has shifted to publishing content that pleases the paying audience. And what pleases readers more than pandering to their confirmation biases? The new mission for the company then becomes not so much to inform as to “conform.” That kind of transformation requires a newsroom of willing accomplices.
The result is a form of intellectual rot of the sort that currently afflicts the corridors of higher education. I suspect the severe decline of local news also has something to do with it. The “farm team” that used to supply the Times and other big papers with talent is shrinking. For every Neil Vigdor, whom I know from my work in Connecticut, there are others who go straight to the Times from such bastions of free speech as Harvard. (Neil started out at the Hearst CT newspapers and the Hartford Courant before being hired by the Times, where he now covers politics).
The Times is not alone here. Many — albeit smaller — conservative outlets are surely experiencing the same phenomenon. Unless big national media outlets have strong leadership that demands impartiality at the expense of devoted subscribers, we can expect more of this lucrative intellectual rot, even as local news continues along its path of inevitable destruction. I hope I am proved wrong, but I don’t think I will be.