My new student, aged twelve, going on seventeen, comes complete with cellphone, a slim thing tucked in close to her bare belly by stretchy pants.
If this were regular school instead of my special program, bringing in a cellphone might be grounds for suspension—not that I can see that this rule has successfully separated any students from this new version of a security blanket. Adults’ threats of confiscation or “no more minutes until you behave” are now the disciplinary tool of choice for parents and teachers but I’ve yet to see any positive long-term effect.
This is precisely why my student has brought in her favorite toy—to tempt me out of my role as therapist into the role of disciplinarian. She knows how to handle disciplinarians—keep them busy with behavior issues to avoid getting down to the business of learning. She and the trusty cellphone can manipulate well meaning but dense adults like me into a place where all they can do is shake their heads over her, giving up on any ideas they might have had on helping with her education and upbringing, as they might give up, at least temporarily, on a child hooked on meth.
Make no mistake: this beautiful child twitching and itching to cradle her favorite toy in her hands, in her bra, in her pants, is an addict. ”If I had any minutes,” she giggles, “I’d be sitting here texting all day.” She demonstrates the hunched-over posture, eyes glued to the small screen. She’s trying to talk me into no program tomorrow because it’s payday an she plans on cajoling, wheedling and whining until her mother gives in and buys her cellphone time, whereupon she’ll get her texting fix at last. If the new minutes outlast the weekend, it will be a small miracle. Meanwhile, she cuddles the thing, plays music, jumps around among the functions that operate without minutes, “accidentally” calls 911 (or perhaps not so accidentally). She’s a junkie.
A junkie I’m supposed to rescue from the vast dark fields of illiteracy, innumeracy and nescience.
I can understand how a cellphone would seem a beacon of knowledge and competence from where she stands.
I give her the talk on Why You Don’t Want to Carry Your Cellphone Next to Your Reproductive Organs in Case You Might Want Children with Only One Head Someday. In one ear and out the other. Like so many kids now, she has auditory-processing deficit and grasps little of what people say. Anyway, she’s twelve—as far as she knows, she’s immortal. Impervious to disease and harm. Adults are stupid and she’ll never be like us.
That’s what I’m afraid of. Is it even possible to engage in meaningful, useful learning while your whole being is consumed by addiction? There’s already better evidence out there now about the health dangers of cellphones and their ilk than there was fifty years ago about the dangers of cigarette-smoking. There are stringent laws against providing kids with tobacco products or alcohol—why on earth is it legal to put a cellphone into childish hands?
We now know that the human brain doesn’t finish growing until age 18. Evidence is growing that putting screens in front of young human faces interferes with brain development as well as social skills, not to mention the physical problems the Hooked on Electronics generation faces—weak immune systems, diabesity, cancer. Yet, bursting with pride over our society’s technological prowess, we load up the kids with electronic toys from babyhood. We brag about their seemingly natural ability with computers while shaking our heads ruefully over their failure to master the times tables. We support the electronification of elementary schools. We disparage parents who argue there should be no wi-fi in schools; we mouth that old mantra, “You can’t stop Progress.”
If my student represents Progress, heaven help us.
“Why don’t you go play in traffic?” goes an old jest from exasperated parents. We laugh because we recognize the duty of adults to protect children from themselves, from the Can’t Happen to Me syndrome we all had when young. Yet we spend too little time thinking about how young humans really grow and learn, about how to protect their capacities. Remember, not giving your kid a cellphone will not result in your being charged with Failure to Provide Necessities of Life, even if your kid wishes that were true.
We’re killing our kids with neglect. Twenty years from now, when the evidence of harm is incontrovertible, will those who have survived forgive us?