This article was originally published by We Are Teachers and is titled "The Surprising Thing I Noticed Watching Videos of High School Students From the ’90s" - That title is much catchier but the article was edited for length. I am including the original version of the article below. If you want to read the more finely tuned and polished version please click the link below:

The Surprising Thing I Noticed Watching Videos of High School Students From the 1990s
Today’s high school students can’t believe what they see in this video.

The student lounge used to be the school social area.  Students would joke around, play cards, hang out and bond.  Teachers would occasionally come in and tell the students to quiet down when their talking inevitably morphed into loud laughter and generally stupid comments.

For the past five or more years the student lounge was completely silent.  It wasn't silent because kids had discovered the joy of reading Dostoyevsky.  It was quiet because students were completely engrossed in their cell phones.  They stopped interacting with each other and just immersed themselves in whatever engaged them online.  

So, in my third year of working at this private school on the upper east side of Manhattan, the school decided to collect cell phones at the beginning of the school day and not to return them until students went home.  

The kids were livid when we told them we were taking away their phones and not returning them until they left for the day.  Among the arguments I heard:

My parents need to be able to be in touch with me!

What if there is an emergency when I am out of school?

What if my parents need me?

Some of the parents gave us some grief too.  Many of them were used to texting their kids throughout the day.  They told us how their kids couldn't operate well without distractions.   Despite all the concerns and threats about transferring to other schools we persisted and took away the phones. 

Within about two weeks we noticed a profound change.  Kids were talking to each other, playing cards and laughing!  The student lounge, which had been quiet for years, was now a loud and raucous place; the way it should be.  

One of my current favorite YouTube rabbit holes has been watching videos of high school students from the 90s and early 2000s.  There is a lot of nostalgia there having lived my formative young adult years in that time.  But there is something else that I see when I look at these videos.  

The students are extremely different.  They are more confident.  They are open.  They seem relaxed.  There is significantly less tension.  There are lots of people smiling in these videos.  I don't see nearly this much smiling from students today.  

Nearly a million people have watched this video from June 1998

What is extremely interesting about these videos (some which have 4-5 million views) are the comments.   The middle aged people waxing nostalgic doesn’t surprise me but there are dozens of comments like the one below that stand out:

"I graduated in 2023 and this is crazy to me.  My high school was pretty big but everyone just kept to themselves.  There would be classrooms full of kids and no teacher but nobody would even talk to each other.  High School in the 1990s seemed really fun!"

I can confirm both statements; high school in the 90's was really fun and students today don't really talk to each other.  When students have free time they mostly sit in a room and just stare at their phones.  Some extroverted kids might collaborate and make a TikTok dance routine but they are all simply interacting with one phone instead of directly interacting with each other.

There are enough comments on these videos to suggest that at least some young people today recognize that there is something fundamentally different about society and that the information technology revolution hasn't necessarily been for the better.

There is a growing body of data that highlights the net negative impact of cell phones and screens on the developing brain.  The constant novelty that is offered by cell phones massively decreases attention span and focus.  

Research from the Child Mind Institute suggests that high school students are spending an average of 60 hours (or more) a week staring at a screen, or eight and a half hours a day.  Research further suggests that merely having a cell phone on the table or nearby increases cognitive function challenges.  The students are struggling to interact with each other because they don’t have much practice and because the phone offers immediate payoff without all the friction of navigating personalities.  

It is crystal clear to me that there has been a massive shift in the mental health of students.  I know every generation says that the new generation is "worse" and that we usually just mean “different”.  But I believe, and the evidence strongly supports the idea, that gen Z students have lost something incredibly important that was a large part of healthy childhood.  That loss of childhood has become even more profound as Covid lockdowns exacerbated the loss of personal connections between kids.

I don't want to suggest that everything about Gen Z is worse than Gen X.   In many ways the current generation is much nicer and welcoming to unusual students.  There is less overt bullying and while I sometimes lament the hypersensitivity of students who have gotten the impression that everything is risky and that the world is full of predators, I am glad that students are generally nicer to one another and are much more accepting of people's differences.

The machines chose the 90s as peak humanity for a reason

But according to research by Jonathan Haidt, author of The Anxious Generation, there has been a massive decrease in the mental health of students.  The shift from a "play based childhood" to a "phone based childhood" is the greatest causal factor to explain the drastic increase in mental health problems that became visible in the 2010s, shortly after the smartphone and 24/7 internet access became the norm.  This flip basically rewired all of our brains, as evidenced by the decreased attention spans of adults, but this shift has hit Gen Z the hardest since they never had a play based childhood.  

Schools are not just another content distribution engine.  If that is all that we are doing we might as well just assign students a bunch of YouTube videos to watch for each subject and have chatGPT auto deliver assignments and call it a day.  Schools are a place where students come together to grow; ideally under the guidance of nurturing adults but also with each other.  The man I have become is partly the result of the adults that influenced me but also (and probably mostly) the people who became my friends.  

As students minimize direct contact with each other they are losing the social cues, the ability to interact and all the personal growth that comes from learning from, and resolving the challenges that come with, other people.  

School can change this.  We have the means of imposing an eight hour cell phone break for students. That means we can reduce their screen time by almost half during the school year.  That would give students the opportunity to actually interact with each other.

Taking away students cell phones won't  solve all the problems that have been created by the technology - but by giving kids a break from the screens and no other choice but to interact directly it is clear that gave the students the opening to develop relationships with each other that would have been easier to avoid if they have the easy dopamine rush of the cell phone instead. 

What should we do ?

Few schools will ban cell phones without external pressure.  Parents should strongly encourage and inform schools about the research around cell phones and the benefits that occur when students do not have cell phones.  

But if your school will not ban cell phones there are still measures that parents can take: 

  • Parents should strongly consider following the pledge to not give kids a smartphone until at least 8th grade. Yes there are potential issues around kids being teased if they do not have some kind of cell phone but when I weigh the cons of social pressure to the cons of a stunted attention span and lack of ability to engage in social cues I know exactly where I stand.  
  • Parents can also strongly urge or ban students from having social media.  If you are paying for your child’s phone you can control what kinds of apps can be downloaded onto the phone.  Parents can also install apps that cut off access to apps during the day to make the phone less appealing.  Google family link, for example, can limit screen time and prevent certain kinds of apps from being downloaded.  
  • The boring phone or similar devices can provide kids with the basic features of a cell phone that allows you to stay in touch with your child.  The kids can still communicate with one another but they cannot access social media on such devices.  This makes the cell phone significantly less enticing, the way phones used to be before they connected us to the internet.  

Teachers can also help out even if the school doesn't want to ban phones. We can help student development by discouraging and minimizing screen time for classwork and homework. A lot of educational activities are really "edu-tainment" in disguise. Watching videos might keep the students engaged more in class but it comes at the continuing cost of denying them the opportunity to build their capacity for patience and focus.

If it were up to me we would minimize the amount of information technology necessary to teach. I see no evidence that the information technology revolution has improved our capacity to teach. I see plenty of evidence to support the idea that additional information technology dependency has made us weaker as teachers (but that is an essay for another day).

Ultimately we need to do our best to be conscious of when kids are using their technology.  We have the right to regulate their use of it and it is for their own good to have extended breaks from the phone.  Whenever there is an opportunity to do something without a screen that option will be better for the kid.

Banning cell phones might be the most important thing that a school can do to help students build community and build resilience and improve mental health.  

Smart phones have essentially been a global scale neurological experiment.  The results are in and the data show that there have been net negative effects on all of us but particularly on children.  The dopamine hit that we get from the never ending novelty makes it difficult for us to accept the slower pace of reality.  Fortunately, like many habits and addictions, after a bit of withdrawal symptoms our brain can return to something like an original state. As Jonathan Haidt brilliantly put it "we ended up overprotecting children in the real world while under protecting them in the virtual world."

We need to recognize this and take active steps to minimize the total amount of time children are interacting with a screen and help maximize the amount of time they interact with each other.  There will be resistance to that but the more we decrease students' access to phones the better off all children will be. 

We ought to practice what we preach and model our own restraint with the phone.  Taking phone sabbaths and putting the phone away after a certain hour can go a long way to reducing the collective hours that families are using the screen.  The problem is that the phone is the default option for entertainment.  If we consciously remove it from being the default option we all will likely experience better mental health.

But this alone isn't enough - we need to consciously find opportunities for kids to directly engage with each other.  School trips with no phones.  Service projects where the students need to collaborate.  Lots of playdates (ideally outside) if kids are age appropriate.  Family trips that are mostly phone free.  regular BBQs with friends and family with no screens allowed.  Consciously interacting with other humans and not having a screen to fall back on has to be a part of life if we want to give kids a shot at having a healthy childhood.