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Why are kids assaulting teachers for taking their phones?

The year isn’t halfway over, and already 2023 has seen teachers punched in the face, pepper sprayed and even beaten unconscious for attempting to confiscate students’ phones and devices.

Experts say this uptick in violent outbursts is fueled by two causes: teens who are literally addicted to their smartphones, coupled with ineffective school policies about phone usage.

“[Youth phone addiction] very much mirrors all the diagnostic features of an actual addiction,” psychologist Nicholas Kardaras, the author of “Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction is Hijacking our Kids,” said. “Your dopamine gets spiked, and then you get habituated to that reward, and so round and round you go in pursuit of it.”

So when someone tries to take away the device, he said, it should be no surprise that the response is “not just a meltdown, but it’s a nuclear meltdown.”

And even as more schools across the country are moving to curb devices — according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 77% of schools prohibit non-academic cell phone use — teachers are too often left alone to enforce bans.

Although cell phones were banned in New York City public schools by former Mayor Bloomberg, the policy was reversed by DeBlasio in 2015. Now it’s up to individual schools, and sometimes individual teachers, to establish their policies.

In May, a video of a student pepper spraying an Antioch, Tennessee, teacher who had confiscated her phone went viral.

Antioch, Tennessee, high school student confronting teacher who took away her phone
The student reportedly yelled at the teacher, “Give me my phone!”

Without clear official orders, teachers can be put in a hard position: forced to make the choice between being the “cool” teacher with a relaxed policy or the “bad guy” who says no phones in class.

“It should be a school-wide policy so that you don’t have kids targeting who they feel is the ‘bad cop’ teacher,” Dr. Nicholas Kardaras told The Post. “Otherwise all the animus and venom gets targeted towards that one poor teacher who is trying to do the right thing.”

It’s a feeling Patrick Danz knows well. The 39-year-old has been an English teacher at Allen Park High School in Allen Park, Michigan, since 2008. 

For his first few years on the job, the school’s policy required teachers to confiscate phones on-site if they were spotted during class. Students would then have to retrieve the device with their parents at the end of the day from an administrative office.

Patrick Danz
Michigan high school teacher Patrick Danz says policing phones in class is “demoralizing.”

That short-lived policy, Danz said, was very effective: “I think it was good because it was from the top down. For a lot of kids, once you take it once, it was definitely a deterrent.”

But soon the school changed the policy, deferring to teachers to implement their own phone rules. Danz said inconsistency between classrooms has been an issue, as some teachers are more lax than others.

As a result, he said, student performance has plummeted.

“[The lack of a phone policy is] a major detriment. Grades are very poor, generally speaking. I have some classes now where you’re lucky if people even turn assignments in because they’re so distracted.”

In his own classroom, Danz keeps a display of numbered pockets near the door, where students deposit their devices. Even still, he has to keep an eye out for kids on phones — a task he called “demoralizing.”

Patrick Danz's classroom door with cell phone deposit slots
In an effort to curb phone usage in his classroom, Patrick Danz set up cell phone slots near his door.

“I didn’t go into teaching to police phones,” he told The Post. “I feel like I can’t compete with TikTok. I could ride a unicycle juggling flaming bowling pins, and that wouldn’t be exciting enough to compete with what they have on their device.”

Experts agree that teachers shouldn’t be put in this position.

“It’s just not fair to students, it’s not fair to teachers, it’s not fair to the parents and administrators,” said Dr. Anna Lembke, professor of psychiatry and addiction medicine at Stanford University. “No one can compete with the entertainment value and the addictive nature of digital drugs.”

If teachers are put in the position of being the “bad cop” without the backing of the school, Lembke said they can find themselves on the receiving end of explosive rage when they confiscate phones from students who are literally addicted to their devices.

Dr. Anna Lembke headshot
Dr. Anna Lembke said phone addiction is just as real as any other form of addiction.

“If you get the [phone] that you use to manage your emotions and to self-soothe and to create your identity ripped away from you, you will feel as if you’re falling into the abyss,” she told The Post. “It’s very common to see children who get their devices taken away having rage outbursts.”

This, Lembke and Kardaras agree, is because the brain experiences tech addiction much like any other form of addiction.

It’s such a common issue that Dr. Kardaras started a treatment program in Austin, Texas, called Omega Recovery to help young adults do a digital detox from what he dubs “digital heroin.”

"Glow Kids" book cover
Addiction psychologist Nicholas Kardaras wrote “Glow Kids” for parents looking to help their child through phone addition.

Many of Kardaras’ young patients are referred to his clinic after getting physical with parents or teachers who attempt to take away their devices.

Although violent outbursts in school are still uncommon, Kardaras thinks they’re becoming more common. The solution, he says, is for phones to stay out of the classroom — whether that means leaving them at home or checking them in at the door.

It’s a strategy that George Lammay, superintendent of Washington School District in southwestern Pennsylvania, is trying out.

Up until this school year, phone policies were left up to teachers. But this year the district opted for a full-scale phone ban during schooldays.

Dr. Nicholas Kardaras
Dr. Kardaras says “nuclear” emotional outbursts after phone confiscations are becoming more and more common.

Included in the plan is Yondr pouches, fabric baggies with a magnetic lock that works much like a retail security tag. At the beginning of the day, all 7th to 12th graders deposit their phones, and they’re only given the magnet to unlock it when it’s time to go home.

“At lunch time, kids actually talk to one another again,” Lammay said. “They have conversations again.”

And, although academic data for the plan’s pilot year is yet to come, he’s “certain” that there have been improvements.

“Our teachers have affirmed clearly that the student engagement level is dramatically better,” Lammay said.

Kids on phones in hallway
Experts say allowing cellphone use in schools is detrimental to both social connectivity and academic performance.

Research has long confirmed that phone bans improve school performance.

A London School of Economics study from 2015 found that they result in adding the equivalent of an hour of instructional time every week. Test scores went up 6%, with the biggest gains amongst at-risk and under-performing students.

More recent research has confirmed these findings. As social psychologist and NYU professor Jonathan Haidt points out in his Substack, “The research is clear: Smartphones undermine attention, learning, relationships and belonging.”

Haidt, whose next book is 2024’s “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness,” points to a wealth of research confirming that the vast majority of students check their phones often, are easily distracted when doing so — and suffer learning losses as a consequence.

Student punching his teacher in Houston, Texas
In April, a Houston student was caught on video punching his teacher in the face during an altercation over cell phone use.

But implementing phone bans doesn’t come without pushback. 

One common concern voiced by parents is that their children would be unable to contact them in the event of a school shooting. Kardaras says this might be a reason to opt for a policy of leaving phones at the classroom door, rather than a full-scale ban.

Students at Torrington High School in Connecticut staged a rowdy protest early last year after their district attempted to implement a phone-pouch policy like Lammay’s district did. Fire alarms were pulled, police were called, and the school had to cancel classes.

Legislators have tried to step in and back schools up — with mixed results.

While Maine, Arizona, and Utah all failed to pass cell phone policies, other initiatives have had more success. In 2019, California became the first state to give schools the backing of the state to institute cell phone bans.

Student stomping on teacher
Earlier this year, a Florida teen brutally beat his teacher unconscious after she reportedly attempted to take away his Nintendo switch. The teacher has denied this.
Flagler County Sheriff’s Office

Meanwhile, a bill signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis just last month will prevent Florida students from using phones in “instructional time” unless “expressly directed by a teacher solely for educational purposes,” starting in the coming school year.

The new law instructs teachers to “designate an area for wireless communications devices during instructional time,” like Danz does with the phone pouches.

And while states, school districts and teachers all grapple with the issue of what to do about phones, Kardaras said parents have a role to play, too.

“The school can’t be a substitute for good parenting when it comes to digital usage. That begins at home,” he said. Kardaras is a father of twin 16-year-old boys, who he didn’t give smartphones to until they turned 15.

His message to concerned parents: “Delay, delay, delay as much as possible. If you give a phone to a 9-year-old, they’re not developmentally equipped to handle such a powerful piece of technology.”

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