“We know TikTok is bad for us, but it’s better than the real world.”

Phones lure students away from their physical academic setting into a virtual loop of TikTok videos, Snapchat messages and targeted ads – not to mention texts and calls from their parents. Boumenjapet/Dreamstime.com via TNS

These were the words of one of my ninth grade students last spring, speaking to our freshman English class during a classroom discussion about their futures. Some mentioned taking health and driver’s education in summer school; others mentioned jobs at the beach and community center.

“But I’m worried about our future down the road,” the student added, gesturing toward an unseen horizon.

He went into a litany of reasons for his despondency: the pandemic, the increase in school shootings and gun violence, the erosion of social service budgets, the current and future dangers of climate change, the divided nature of politics in America, global conflicts, the stress of standardized testing, the escalation of mental health crises among his generation, and the debates about what should and should not be taught in schools.

Yet as I looked out at the class, 90 percent of whom were on phones, an additional concern about their future became clear. It was right there, in the students’ hands.

I’m about to begin my 20th year teaching high school English, and I’m increasingly concerned about the implications of teaching to a digitally dependent generation of teenagers.


The phones lure students away from their physical academic setting into a virtual loop of TikTok videos, Snapchat messages and targeted advertisements for food delivery and teen fashion.

Many schools have cellphone policies, but these are difficult to enforce. Teachers who do try to limit phone use in class plead, beg, bargain and offer well-researched statistics, candy and extra credit. Others collect phones in baskets or shoe cubbies. I tried these things for years. I also attempted, as many teachers do, to make phones part of the curriculum, designing lessons that use apps. These lessons are fun, but they occur in between dozens of notifications invading students’ phones every minute.

The issue isn’t phones. The issue is dependence on social media apps streaming through phones. And the irony is teenagers don’t want to be using social media as much as they are.

A Pew Research Center report from 2018 disclosed that 54 percent of teens said they spend too much time on their phones, and 60 percent said being online all the time is a major problem for them. Unsurprisingly, their feelings post-pandemic have worsened.

Phone camera apps entice students to stare at themselves constantly during class. They gaze at their live image, yet the image is distorted because of filters that soften and blur how they look. Some watch themselves without filters, scrutinizing every pore on their face. Either way, they’re continuously self-conscious. They struggle to participate in discussions, engage with other students and reflect on their work.

Some students try to put them away. But soon, they fidget and twitch. The phones are back on desks, hidden in books or behind school-issued Chromebooks. (A screen behind a screen!)


Parents need to do their part, too. Many of my students frequently receive texts and calls during class from their parents, who seem to believe their kid should be accessible to them any second of the school day. Yet parents seem to be surprised to hear that their child is on their phone during class.

Messages range from “Your sister is picking you up” to “I changed your dentist appointment to tomorrow” and “How’s your day?”

These interruptions massively disrupt the classroom environments teachers are trying to build. Students feel compelled to answer immediately, whether they are conducting a science lab, writing an essay or solving an algebra problem. The constant intrusion prevents teenagers from the necessary individuation schools are supposed to provide and inhibits them from discovering themselves – from finding a place for themselves in the future my student said he’s concerned about.

School is a space for students to explore and debate ideas, formulate and defend arguments. The longer students are using social media apps in the classroom, the harder it will be for them to learn and grow.

We are back in person for another school year. I am trying to make a better world for my students, to help them build a future that will survive the concerns my student was worried about. A future that will last longer than an endless TikTok loop.

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