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Is the Cell Phone the new ‘Box of Cigarettes’?

KellerParenting, Relationship-based Teaching Leave a Comment

Meet the schizophrenic dopamine dispenser in your pocket! We ask the question, is the cell phone the new box of cigarettes?

When I was in High School in the 1970’s, I needed a supply of 5c, 10c and 20c coins for emergency calls from the pay phone.  In an emergency, and if our parents consented, we could make use of a reverse charge and the home phone would be billed, but the cost would be deducted from our monthly pocket money.  No news was regarded as good news, so the need to check up or check in was not necessary.  I was the first one in my Grade 9 class to have a Casio pocket calculator that my Dad had purchased on a business trip to Dallas, Texas. I had arrived.

Additive Nicotine
The addictive nicotine fix

At school, the boys smoked on the unsupervised school bus travelling to and from school.  At break we would lie in circles on the grass field and enjoy a midday “drag” in the sun complete with the survival kits of the now famous naartjie.   A packet of Peter Stuyvesant; or was it Benson & Hedges, would do the rounds. The cool guys smoked the unfiltered Camel because it was a sign of masculinity in a boys school to do it “raw” and enjoy the full flavour.   Clouds of smoke could be seen from the school building, but by the time the duty teacher reached the circle on the cricket field, the shared cigarette had been buried deep into the soil below the neatly cut outfield.  The easy peeling citrus fruit provided a good breathalyser and the peel was quickly rubbed on our fingers.  Pure innocence simply strolled away from the circle and all evidence faded.

Somehow it never bothered the teachers.  They too loved their addictive nicotine fix, some cigarettes, some pipes.  This life threatening habit was acceptable behaviour for educators.

Today, teachers are concerned about the new schizophrenic dopamine dispenser in the pockets of their students.  Many try to police it.  One teacher told me that she never has a problem with cell phones as her students know that it will be confiscated if it is seen.

Young Lady on Phone
Today, teachers are concerned about the new schizophrenic dopamine dispenser in the pocket of their students.”

This is an interesting perspective when this ubiquitous pocket sized computer, complete with a high quality camera, audio player, calculator, free calling/messaging in a wifi zone and a networking system that keeps everyone informed of all personal and sometimes private experiences freely published, making face to face encounters seem unnecessary – is part of all our lives. Is it the new box of cigarettes – or is it even worse?

Large scale school bans of the device don’t seem to work.  Helicopter parents want to know, every second, what their children are doing or what their needs may be in fast moving schools where plans are often changed because of power load shedding or emergencies.  Students are highly dependent on their pocket dispensers providing the dopamine that is in short supply during the teen years. The addiction has reached levels where it cannot be controlled, similar to liquor bans during lockdown.  When you can’t – you get!

The steroid flood in the early years of adolescence is staggering.  Boys experience a 800% increase in testosterone and girls 1300% in oestrogen.  The steroids result in dramatic, rapid  physical growth and emotional changes.  However, the neurotransmitters and neuromodulators essential for academic cognition shrink and are at an all time low.  Teenagers crave the reward drug, dopamine, which is generated by risk, challenge, recognition, exercise and collaboration.  The brain also reads alcohol, nicotine, drugs and sex as dopamine. 

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The cellphone dispenses a whole lot of the dopamine needs of the teenagers. 

Risky images are published, shared and commented on.  Comments, gossip, lies, and put downs are constantly posted.  Experiences are captured and enhanced with filters to generate fake reels to capture moments in their lives. Having followers is more important than friends and being online is more exciting that being together.  Many will do almost anything for recognition and to get likes.

What could teachers do?

1. Rethink the cellphone policy at your school.

Monitor professional staff usage of their cellphones during a meeting.  Record a meeting so they can observe their own level of engagement with their cell phone during a staff meeting. Then discuss the behaviour of the professional staff versus our demands on our students.

2. Run a survey to discover the students’ use of the devices:

Adapted from: Christopher R.Klein
Adapted from: Christopher R.Klein

3. Be aware of the chemical needs of a teenager.

Co-create (students and teachers) cellphone free spaces using community agreements.   The power of choice in the mind of the tween and teenager is enormous.  Autonomy has value.

4. Watch this short video with your students: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dRl8EIhrQjQ

Bring your students up to speed with the power of the smartphone and its negative effect on their lives. Drive school wide information campaigns about the impact of the cell phone on their lives.

5. Make sure the entire school watches this video and then get the organisation talking.  Share the link with parents too.


6. Create cellphone charging stations where phones are placed in Airplane mode as a precondition for usage. Plan to include the cell phone in your lesson so that its benefits are optimised.

Is the cell phone the new ‘box of cigarettes’ or is it even worse? Well, that’s down to how parents and teachers manage it. Using these six steps can fundamentally assist your teaching and parenting to ensure that we keep the schizophrenic dopamine dispenser in their pocket at bay, and not allow it to control their lives.

To learn more about how to manage devices at school and in the home, click here. Our Client Liaison Team would love to connect with you. Get in touch!


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