A High School Zombie Apocalypse

By: Chris Johnson

Last fall, after ordering a meal at a small local diner, my kids received an unexpected compliment from our waiter. “I’m so impressed that they order by themselves,” he said. “We get a lot of teenagers in here who won’t even do that.”

Occasionally, video clips go viral on social media showing students in a public high school on a grainy, digitally converted camcorder tape, in the pre-cell-phone era. “High School in America in the 2000s. What do you notice?” asks one X user about the video. The replies beneath the video agree: “Smiles;” “normal, happy, unconfused people;” “happy people getting along.” There’s something else that many noticed in the comments however: “No phones;” “No phones and happy kids…;” “Everyone’s happy, having a good time, and not on [their] phones.”  One user says, “2010 was the year public school education took a nose dive. Many reasons but the biggest was the iPhone / smart phones. Biggest contributor to the decline of modern public-school education.”

That is the conclusion that researcher and author Jonathan Haidt has come to as well, and is the focus of several of his books, including the most recent: The Anxious Generation. Ben Christensen of the Federalist.com sums it up: “His hypothesis is well-worn: ‘Smartphones and social media caused the teen mental health crisis and an in-person, play-based childhood would be better.’ …his major contribution is offering context and depth to these oft-discussed issues.”

The review continues: “A young girl on TikTok, in about an hour (assuming an average of three seconds per post), could see a thousand posts that indicate what ‘normal’ girls look like and what ‘popular’ girls do. This amount of content, combined with the tallies of likes and comments that make status seem so objective, leads Haidt to call social media ‘the most powerful social conformity engine ever created.’ The problem is that ‘normal’ girls are filtered and curated and ‘popular’ girls are often narcissistic and unwell.”

Girls’ and boys’ perceptions of what it means to be a boy or girl in our day are inevitably corrupted if a child is on social media. For every human being they see face-to-face in their daily life, they’ll see a thousand more speaking in odd internet intonations, attempting sometimes dangerous challenges, teaching scientific or religious or historical or philosophical “facts” which might have a tenuous connection to reality.

Later in his review, Christensen points out how Haidt views cell phones’ effect on schools, as X users commented on above: “Haidt is adamant that having smartphones in school is ‘kryptonite for learning’ and harmful to social dynamics. He profiles Mountain Middle School in Durango, Colorado, where they went phone-free in 2012. Immediately, students began talking with each other before class instead of scrolling, and the school’s academic performance soon attained Colorado’s highest performance rating. The principal, Shane Voss, said when he walks into a school without a phone ban, ‘It’s kind of like the zombie apocalypse, and you have all these kids in the hallways not talking to each other.’” So, what are modern parents supposed to do as we raise our kids in the midst of this “zombie apocalypse?”

The article mentions several movements: the “Wait Until 8th” commitment to hold off on smartphone use until 8th grade, and the “Postman Pledge” to swap screen time for reading.  A national organization which is headquartered not far from our own offices, “Protect Young Eyes,” encourages parents to wait until high school before allowing social media, and then to monitor it closely.

Parents can’t afford to leave their responsibilities at the lock screen. We ought to think through tech issues with our kids like, what does sharing a selfie actually communicate? What kind of information can strangers find out about us through a profile page? Should we care what internet people think of us? Can we trust the information that others share? Does social media usage affect our spiritual lives? These are just a few questions that arise with social media usage at any age.

Thankfully, technological advancement also brings tools for parents wanting to keep their kids safe from manipulation and perversion. One of the most powerful ways parents can protect their kids from perverted content and promote responsible internet usage is at the wireless router level. Routers released within the last several years have controls built into them which can block certain keywords, sites, and content and limit usage for certain devices.

“It’s a hub for monitoring your kids online and your family’s first line of defense against digital dangers. Gryphon provides total protection against screen time addiction, adult websites, inappropriate content, hackers, & personal privacy threats.”

As Gryphon says for itself, the router is only the first line of defense. That only filters the internet coming from that router. If a phone or device with a data connection turns off the Wi-Fi or connects to another network or has a 5G or LTE connection, it will be unprotected.

That’s where we’ve found accountability apps come in. There are lots of options with different capabilities out there, but accountability apps are great because the user always knows that what they’re doing is done in the light. Google’s Family Link is free and extremely powerful. It allows you to block the browser, the search bar, YouTube, and any other undesirable app, but it’s Google, which means they’re storing usage data and doing who knows what with it.

If all of this sounds like a lot to keep track of, that’s because it is. But it’s the price of admission for a kid with a digital device with internet access. If parents can see what the broader culture is doing to kids and are adamant that their kids will not turn into THAT, we’re going to need to put in some extra work.

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