Opinion: A better path on smartphones and students

In an era of Instagram and TikTok, social media is encroaching on teenagers’ time more than ever.

In an era of Instagram and TikTok, social media is encroaching on teenagers’ time more than ever.

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With mental health problems rightfully on the mind of many of us, this newspaper’s editorial board asked a good question recently. “Is it time to remove phones from classrooms?”

Now it is also a question that our state government will be asking officially because of a law signed by Gov. Ned Lamont Wednesday. We introduced legislation in the state Senate in January to direct University of Connecticut researchers to evaluate the effects of cell phones and social media in school settings on academic outcomes and mental health — and policies to address the matter. Our proposal was added as Section 6 of the bipartisan children’s mental health bill, Senate Bill 2, and enacted into law.

Our legislation was informed by three important trends. First is the rise in mental health problems faced by adolescents. The rate of anxiety, depression, and self-harm among young people, and especially adolescent girls, increased substantially in the last decade and accelerated since the pandemic. The rate of emergency room visits for self-harm probably doubled in the last decade. Decreasingly few of us have not been touched in some way by these sad developments among family or friends.

Second is the precipitous drop in academic outcomes since the pandemic and enforcement of public health restrictions on students and schools. Among Connecticut students in hybrid learning environments last year — most of them — the number of non-high-needs students proficient in math declined by about a quarter, from 71 percent to 53 percent proficient, and the number of high-needs students dropped by two-fifths, from 27 percent to 16 percent. Nor was the academic situation in Connecticut great before COVID, with test scores falling slightly over the last decade.

Third is the strong link between social media use and the deterioration of adolescent mental health. Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat began exploding in popularity around a decade ago, coinciding very closely with the rise of mental health problems. At least 10 very thorough studies conclude there is a negative causal effect of social media use on mental health. There is also evidence of cell phones undermining academic achievement in schools.

And beyond studies, the negative spiral of social media — its distorted reality, and the social pressure and atomization it entails — is widely understood by the public and especially young people. Internal Facebook documents published by the Wall Street Journal revealed that “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression ... This reaction was unprompted and consistent across groups.”

These are generational challenges that require serious inquiry followed by careful solutions. We conferred with local education officials and Jonathan Haidt, a nationally renowned social psychologist who has been a leading voice on children’s mental health and social media with psychologist Jean Twenge. Professor Haidt believes there needs to be more rigorous study of the effects of smartphone usage in schools for younger adolescents, especially in middle schools, who are very impressionable. As far as we know, the study commissioned by SB2 would be first in the nation of its kind.

With clearer answers about what is happening in schools, and potential solutions, we have a shot at improving mental health and academic outcomes. Governments should not preempt the private decisions of individuals and families, but they should govern wisely in areas of clear cognizance such as schools. That is no small thing, however. Half the days of the year, kids spend nearly half their waking hours in school — highly formidable hours, socially and intellectually. Whether and to what extent they are attached to smartphones and social media for that quarter of their lives — rather than totally focused on academics and making friends — is a major question.

Haidt and Twenge also propose the federal government require age verification for social media accounts and permit parental oversight of accounts for minors. This, again, is more than reasonable because it pertains to children — not adults. In a bipartisan bill on Data Privacy that we also co-sponsored, Senate Bill 6, the state will study whether the federal government preempts state action here or whether the state can act alone on rules like these. The results of that inquiry will also be important.

While what we are advancing will not alone solve the mental health crisis — or other major societal problems — it could be a major positive step that reverberates beyond our state. We hope this new initiative will bring improvements that can make Connecticut a national leader in supporting kids.

State Sen. Heather Somers represents the 18th District, Connecticut’s most southeastern. State Sen. Ryan Fazio represents the 36th District, Connecticut’s most southwestern.