A License to Use Cell Phones

Head of School Peter Becker has been reflecting on the question of why we require teenagers to obtain a license to drive a car, a process that typically involves some level of preparation and training, and yet, no license or training is required for teenagers, pre-teens and even younger students to own and operate a smartphone. It’s a question worth exploring for parents before they simply turn over the keys to the internet and social media to their children, and allow them to attempt to safely and appropriately navigate that terrain without proper guidance.

I have not looked to see whether anyone else has proposed this idea before, but I assume that someone has. It emerged out of a conversation with colleagues and I honestly don’t remember who said it first. My wife and I decided a couple of years ago, once the requests from our three children for a device began, that we were going to wait until they were in ninth grade before allowing them to have their own smartphone. (We may not be in the minority here. According to a report issued this month by “Parents” magazine, which polled 1,000 moms of children ages 1 to 10, only 21 percent of kids ages 10 and under have their own smartphone. But more than a third of kids who have their own phone got it before their sixth birthday, the magazine said.) Our decision was made after watching so many terrific students be swallowed alive by their devices over the 11 and a half years since the iPhone® debuted. As a teacher, a school leader, and a parent, I have had misgivings about any approach ostensibly intended to equip teenagers to use technology wisely and well that amounts principally to telling them what they can’t do, which is how most schools and families seem to handle this topic. I’m very aware that given the power of a smartphone, for both good and bad, simply postponing the moment when they have access to one is not the same as helping them learn to use it well.

During the aforementioned conversation with colleagues, we drew a parallel between smartphones another device that most teenagers long to get their hands on: the automobile (although research from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, among others, indicates that, for a variety of reasons, an increasing number of teenagers are now getting their driver’s licenses later). While I’m sure there are important ways in which the parallel breaks down, there is a lot to learn from that comparison. We are very aware of the damage that a young person – or an adult – can do to themselves and to other people if they are not adequately prepared to handle a car. The rules are different in each state, but they all require a licensing process that hinges on a computer-based test and a practical test wherein an expert gauges the user’s ability to navigate different frequently occurring pitfalls and common mistakes. Many of us may have had to take one or both of these tests more than once, and know teenagers today who have had to do the same, as in most cases the standards have risen. Moreover, we should note, a teenager cannot drive a car without both a carefully earned license and proper insurance because we know that even with the training and preparation that goes into the license, there is a chance that they will hurt themselves, the vehicle, or other drivers, and that risk is greater in the first year, when they are simply less experienced. Some families invest serious time and money, for good reason, in driver education courses to prepare teenagers to drive and insurance companies occasionally offer a discount if they know that a person has taken one of these classes. Clearly, preparation and experience are important factors in determining a young driver’s success.

So, what would it look like to create the same process before we put a smartphone in the hands of our beloved teens? I am early in my thought process about this, and as I mentioned, there are probably models for it already to borrow from, but at the least it could require classroom learning and having to pass some sort of written test or interview. It is easy to envision (and perhaps some families already do this) a probationary period during which the student and parent agree to meet weekly to monitor and review together usage statistics from an app like Moment or Apple’s Screen Time, which automatically tracks your screen time as well as which apps you view most often, and can even help you to schedule downtime. Perhaps families could determine ahead of time what a healthy total amount of screen time would look like, and what a healthy breakdown between different types of apps would be, much like financial budgeting, and then compare reality to the ideal and make adjustments accordingly. Only after a student demonstrates that he or she can use the phone appropriately, at least in terms of time allocation, does he or she gain either unfettered access to the device, or permission to use certain apps that require more discernment and wisdom, such as SnapChat or Instagram. Obviously, how teenagers allocate their time between different apps is one thing, but what they actually do with an app, using it for positive reasons versus habitualizing negative social patterns, are different things and require different kinds of conversations and feedback loops. But I have to imagine that some families and schools, especially middle schools where so much of this activity seems to begin, have already developed protocols for this from which we all can learn.

Just as the police have the authority to issue tickets for improper use of a vehicle, incorporating a scale where the response corresponds with the severity of the infraction, perhaps both families and schools can develop more nuanced responses based on different types of infractions, up to and including removing certain apps entirely or revoking a student’s use of his or her phone. I’ve learned recently about schools experimenting with not allowing smartphones on their campuses. While I understand the attraction of such an idea and expect that such a proposal would be implemented thoughtfully, I’m skeptical on the face of it that this is actually the best preparation for life that we can give to students. The reality is that sending your children to boarding school does not mean that they will be separated from their devices but I hope that all of us at boarding schools can think creatively and purposefully about how we can take advantage of our 24/7 learning environment to equip students to use these powerful tools for good rather than unwittingly being used and shaped by them. It’s a life lesson for all of us, and one we can pass on to our children at any age.