Home Schools & Teachers This 1990s Video Shows Us How Much Things Have Changed for Students

This 1990s Video Shows Us How Much Things Have Changed for Students


One of my current favorite YouTube rabbit holes has been watching videos of high school students from the 1990s and early 2000s. There’s a lot of nostalgia there as someone who lived my formative young adult years during that time. But there is something else that I see when I look at these videos. Check out this one from June 1998, which has nearly a million views.

The students in the ’90s video seem very different from students of today: They are more confident and open. They seem more relaxed. There is significantly less tension. People are actually smiling in these videos—I don’t see nearly this much smiling from students today. The students in the video actually interact with one another.

What’s most interesting about these videos (some of which have 4 million to 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 ’90s was really fun, and students today don’t really talk to one another. When students today have free time, they sit in a room and just stare at their phones for the most part. Some extroverted kids might collaborate and make a TikTok dance routine, but they are all simply interacting with a phone instead of directly interacting with each other.

The comments on these videos suggest that the information technology revolution hasn’t all been for the greater good.

From my vantage point as a teacher, I can say it definitely hasn’t been for the better.

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 years, the student lounge has been completely silent. And it wasn’t silent because kids had discovered the joy of reading Dostoyevsky. It was silent because students were completely engrossed in their cell phones. They stopped interacting with one another and just immersed themselves in whatever engaged them online.  

In my third year of working at a private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, our school elected to ban student cell phones.

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 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.  

There is a growing body of data that highlights the net negative impact of cell phones and screens on the developing brain.   

Research from the Child Mind Institute suggests that high school students are spending an average of 60 hours 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. Students are struggling to interact with one another 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 evidence suggests that Gen Z students have lost something crucial to a 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 Gen Z is hopeless. 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.

But according to research by Jonathan Haidt, author of The Anxious Generation, there has been a massive decrease in the mental wellness 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 today. 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’s all we’re 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. I’m the man I am today because of adults who influenced me, but also because of my friends.

As students minimize direct contact with one another, they lose social cues. They lose the ability to interact. Maybe worst of all, they lose the personal growth that comes with resolving interpersonal challenges. 

School can change this. 

We have the means of imposing an eight-hour 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 one another.

Taking away students’ cell phones won’t solve all the problems that have been created by technology. But by giving kids a break from the screens and presenting–or forcing–no other choice but to interact directly with one another gives them the opening to develop relationships with one another. Letting kids keep their phones all day prevents that development because using the phone provides a cheap dopamine rush and is much easier than talking to someone and risking rejection. 

What can we do?

Fortunately, there’s still a lot we have control over. Here are some of the best ways we can take an active role in helping to protect students today:

  • 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. Few schools will ban cell phones without external and consistent parental pressure.
  • Take the pledge to not give kids a smartphone until at least 8th grade. Yes, there is social pressure—but there is less pressure when more parents are on the same page.
  • 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 without them being able to access social media. This makes the cell phone significantly less enticing, the way phones used to be before they connected us to the Internet.  

Smartphones 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. Fortunately, like many habits and addictions, after pushing through some withdrawal symptoms, our brain can return to something more like its 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 ought to practice what we preach and model restraint with our own phones. Putting phones away for family time, trips, and meals, and consciously creating opportunities to be away from our phones is the best way to teach kids responsible phone usage. Let’s give kids a better shot at a healthy childhood.

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