The Great Phone Debate: Smartphone Edition

If you’ve ever spent any time at all in charge of a classroom, you know the phone issue is a wildfire that rages unchecked throughout American public schools.  Many American teenagers view possession of a cell phone as a necessity; some, I’m sure, would move to make constant telecommunication our Declaration of Independence’s fourth inalienable right.  During ten years in the North Carolina public school system, I confiscated hundreds of phones that were out in the hallways, in use during class time, even, sadly, out and on during state and Advanced Placement tests.  It’s a neverending conflict, and I have yet to meet a savvy public school teacher who hasn’t fought this battle day in and out with students.

Now, before you pull out your iPhone and comment on my unfair persecution of communications technology, let me freely and fully admit that there a hundreds of educational implications for smartphone technology.  Students can easily access information from the Internet; they can post quickly and easily to discussion forums and use educational applications to help study math formulas or acquire new vocabulary.  I even had an absent student use a classmate’s iPhone in order to skype in on a class discussion while he was home sick.  However, in order to avail themselves of the rich pedagogical blessings of the cell phone, the American student has to develop and exercise enough self-restraint to avoid quickly checking his or her Facebook status or replying to that incoming text message.  It’s a temptation to which most adults would succumb, so why would we expect any different from our students?  Our public school classrooms, and indeed our students, are not capable of handling a classroom that doesn’t restrict access to their cell phones.   The cell phone, and especially the smartphone, provides too many attractive distractions.

And the problem is the same over here in Korea, maybe worse.  Students as young as seven or eight have their own smart phones with unlimited data plans, and Internet addiction is a real and ever-present problem over here in the Land of the Morning Calm.  I have to start every class by telling students more than once to stop playing phone games and take out their books.  EVERY class.  It’s like they forget that I said the exact same thing to them yesterday and the day before that and the day before that.  You can shake your head at their seeming inability to internalize this extremely simple behavioral expectation. Or you can marvel that the Korean student’s infinite capacity for hope that today is the day I will finally let him play Bounce Ball during class.

However, for me, the biggest danger of smartphones isn’t gaming addiction or the inability to stop texting.  It’s the fact that children who are 10 or 11 years old have unrestricted access to a  plethora of content.  Last week, Ric walked into his Elite class to find a gaggle of 12 year old girls–elementary school student in Korea, who aren’t old enough to date or do much of anything unsupervised–watching videos of beheadings and people being hit in the fact with axes.  And laughing.  Another friend who teaches across town said her students, upon hearing of the Sandy Hook shooting, were not focused on the twenty schoolchildren who had been murdered or afraid of the possibility that someone could do the same in their own schools.  They were entertained by it, telling her, “Teacher, POW POW!! Blood everywhere!”  Because Korea is a culture where real violence is so abstract–confined mostly to games, movies, and the internet–her students couldn’t even process a massacre of schoolchildren in a way that did not view death and violence as entertainment.

I’ve been thinking about all this stuff for weeks, rolling around in my head the hundreds of ways violence, social media, entertainment, and technology intersect.  Then today, we read that the South Korean government is moving to block profane and pornographic content on smartphones owned by underage citizens.  I wonder if that ban extends to the kind of super-violent content that seems to fascinate the kids at our hagwon.  I wonder if blocking violence would even help, given the fact that Korean students ingest sickening amounts of violence on TV, in games, and on the Internet, but don’t engage in violent crime.  I wonder what deficiency causes American culture to produce murderers, when the students here in Korea probably watch more violence and play more video games than their Western counterparts but don’t go on school-wide killing sprees.

Would cell phone content censorship help Korean (or American) young people comprehend the visceral, real horror of violent crime instead of encouraging them to view rape, murder, and assault as part of an entertainment context?  I don’t know the answers to any of this, but I am intrigued by the issues these questions raise.


Filed under: Uncategorized Tagged: America, Education, Korea, Politics, Technology, Violence