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I Traded My Smartphone for an Ax Caleb Silverberg

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(Photo illustration by The Free Press)

During the pandemic, I became a slave to screens. Online classes were followed by scrolling Instagram or playing Fortnite for hours, ignoring hunger pangs while I immersed myself in a world of pixels.

My Saturdays were pretty grim: I’d wake up and drag myself to the couch where my Xbox had been waiting for me all night long. The closed shades blocked the beaming sun and any hope of enjoying it—swimming in the ocean, biking in the mountains, hiking with my dogs.

At 15 years old, I looked in the mirror and saw a shell of myself. My face was pale. My eyes were hollow. I needed a radical change.

I vaguely remembered one of my older sister’s friends describing her unique high school, Midland, an experiential boarding school located in the Los Padres National Forest. The school was founded in 1932 under the belief of “Needs Not Wants.” In the forest, cell phones and video games are forbidden, and replaced with a job to keep the place running: washing dishes, cleaning bathrooms, or sanitizing the mess hall. Students depend on one another. 

Once I heard of this technology-free oasis, I immediately applied to attend high school there. A few months later, the morning of April 12, 2021, I received the best news of my life. At 7:30 a.m., an email popped into my inbox with the subject line “Welcome To Midland!”

I screamed, “Mom, I got in!” She ran over, still in her bathrobe, to congratulate me.

September 2, 2021, was my first day at Midland, when I traded my smartphone for an ax.

At Midland, students must chop firewood to generate hot water for their showers and heat for their cabins and classrooms. If no one chops the wood or makes the fire, there’s a cold shower, a freezing bed, or a chilly classroom. No punishment by a teacher or adult. Just the disappointment of your peers. Your friends.

Armed with my ax, I found myself liberated from the constant allure of technology. I discovered the joys of engaging in face-to-face conversations and savoring moments without the urge to post them on social media. 

I embraced living off the land—a self-sustaining farm operated by Midland students and faculty. In the spring, I regularly ventured to the garden to devour handfuls of fresh strawberries. At dinners, I savored the recently butchered beef from Midland’s grass-fed cows. I began lifting weights to regain the pounds I had lost while gaming and neglecting my hunger. Living in nature without Instagram or Fortnite or TikTok provided me with an opportunity to reconnect with the world and rediscover the value of genuine human connection.

Screen addictions like mine are a ubiquitous problem today. Excessive screen time is associated with ADHD, myopia (nearsightedness), and depression. Since the release of smartphones in 2005, the rate of Americans reporting symptoms of major depression increased by 52 percent. This is something I’ve witnessed firsthand in my peer group.

Many teens find it difficult to socialize with their peers in person, and instead rely on virtual interactions via Instagram and Snapchat. At many traditional high schools, no one stops to say hello in the hallways. Instead, the halls are filled with the tinny sound of AirPods blasting rap songs beneath the silence.

Before Midland, whenever I sat on the couch, engrossed in TikTok or Instagram, my parents would caution me: “Caleb, your brain is going to melt if you keep staring at that screen!” I dismissed their concerns at first. But eventually, I experienced life without an electronic device glued to my hand and learned they were right all along. 

I am now going into my junior year at Midland School. Whenever I am home, I find myself on my phone much less, and then only to catch up on my favorite TV shows and to talk to the numerous lifelong friends I have made at school. Midland helped me change how I live my life. I’m no longer dependent on a smartphone.

I have been privileged to attend Midland. But anyone can benefit from its lessons. To my generation, I would like to offer a 5,000-year-old solution to our twenty-first-century dilemma. Shabbat is the weekly sabbath in Judaic custom where individuals take 24 hours to rest and relax. This weekly reset allows our bodies and minds to recharge. 

I envision three potential levels of a “Technology Shabbat.” The first is an immersive, Midland-like experience—living without a cell phone. The second is similar to the traditional weekly sabbath, taking one full day a week to turn off your phone. The third is putting the phone away while in educational settings like classrooms.

I went from obsessing over a smartphone to swinging an ax, and learned the power of liberation from a screen. I hope others my age can make the same journey from phone to fulfillment. All it takes is pulling the plug. 

Caleb is a 17-year-old rising junior at Midland School in Los Olivos, California, and one of two runners up in our first-ever Free Press high school essay contest. For this piece, he has won a $1,000 cash prize and a lifetime subscription to The Free Press. Read our other runner-up, Isabel Hogben, on teen porn addiction

Tomorrow, we’ll announce the winner of our contest. And if you want to support our mission of fostering the next generation of independent journalists, become a Free Press subscriber today:

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Also: We’re hosting our first live debate on September 13 at the Ace Theatre in Los Angeles! Has the sexual revolution failed? Come argue about it and have a drink. We can’t wait to meet you in person. You can purchase tickets now at thefp.com/debates.

 

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Disenchanted with Democrats: The Black Voters Going for Trump Bari Weiss

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For the past few decades, it’s been conventional wisdom in D.C. that “demographics are destiny.” That the increased share of immigrants, young people, and racial minorities across the country would build a bulletproof coalition for the Democratic Party, swelling their ranks and keeping them in power forever.

Those who deviated from this expectation could expect to be called sellouts, race traitors, and Uncle Toms. Recall Joe Biden’s infamous interview with radio host Charlamagne tha God, when he said: “If you have a problem figuring out if you’re for me or for Trump, then you ain’t black.”

But in the past year, Donald Trump has been winning over more minority voters than any Republican in decades. Recent polls have consistently shown that Trump has reached a shocking 20 percent support among black voters. That’s compared to the 8 percent he got in 2016. And Biden’s polling with black voters has dropped dramatically.

This is a monumental, and to many, unexpected turn. And it was noticeable at the RNC. When Michael Moynihan went to the 2016 Republican Convention in Cleveland, the audience was more monochromatic. While certainly not as racially diverse as the Democratic coalition, the convention in Milwaukee felt younger and less white.

Monday night, Amber Rose opened the proceedings. Tuesday night, Madeline Brame, the mother of a murdered veteran, gave a thunderous speech explaining why she’s supporting Trump. She said: “Our eyes have been opened, just like so many other poor minorities across America. Donald Trump shares our values, love of God and family and country. He’s been a victim of the same corrupt system that I have been and my family has been.”

What’s behind this shift? Why do Biden and the Democratic Party seem to be losing their edge with black voters? And could this end up making a real difference for the 2024 election?

Last night, Michael Moynihan went to an event at the RNC put on by the Black Conservative Federation to ask them why they think that MAGA conservatism is appealing to black voters.

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Abigail Shrier: California’s New Law Lets Schools Keep Secrets from Parents Abigail Shrier

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Protests at a Chino Valley Board of Education meeting on gender policy on July 20, 2023, in Chino, California. (Photo by David McNew via Getty Images)

Child predators follow a common playbook: target the victim, gain their trust, fill a need, and, crucially, isolate the child from her parents. For several years, this has also been standard California state protocol with regard to schoolchildren questioning their gender identities. On Monday, this scheme became law.

The “SAFETY Act,” AB 1955, signed by California Democratic governor Gavin Newsom, legally forbids schools from adopting any policy that would force them to disclose “any information related to a pupil’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression to any other person without the pupil’s consent.” Schools may not, as a matter of policy, inform parents of a child’s new gender identity unless the child volunteers her approval. The law also prohibits schools from punishing any school employee found to have “supported a pupil” hurtling down a path toward risky and irreversible hormones and surgeries.

The law effectively shuts down the local parents’ rights movement in California by eliminating its most important tool: the ability to organize at the community level to stop schools from deceiving them. No longer can families hope to convince their school boards to require schools to notify parents that their daughter, Sophie, has been going by “Sebastian” in class; that her teacher, school counselor, and principal have all been celebrating Sebastian’s transgender identity; that they’ve been letting her use the boys’ bathroom and reifying the sense that she is “really a boy.” 

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the law supports the priming of minor children for a secret life with a new gender identity. This includes having school-aged children participate in sexualized discussions and make identity declarations with school faculty, which are often actively hidden from the child’s parents. Elon Musk called the law “the final straw” for families and announced his intention to move both SpaceX and X, two of California’s most prominent tech companies, out of the state as a result. “The goal [of] this diabolical law,” he tweeted, “is to break the parent-child relationship and put the state in charge of your children.”

While researching my book, Irreversible Damage, and in the four years since its publication, I have talked to hundreds of parents whose daughters suddenly identified as transgender. Many of their daughters were encouraged in this revelation by school counselors and teachers in school districts across America. One parent told me a California school counselor had given her son the address of an LGBTQ youth shelter and suggested he emancipate himself from parents who were loving but skeptical of his sudden transgender identity. Another recent California law, AB 665, would have made reclaiming that young man from the youth center all but impossible because he was over the age of twelve.

In California, instruction in sexual orientation and gender identity has been mandatory for all public school students K–12 since the passage of the Healthy Youth Act in 2016. Because such instruction typically occurs within the required “anti-bullying curriculum” rather than the sex education curriculum, parents cannot elect that their children opt out of what is, in practice, a full-bore indoctrination into gender ideology. 

When a child then predictably decides in class that she too may be nonbinary or transgender, this revelation will often trigger schools’ gender support plan, effectively a school-wide conspiracy to promote the child’s new name and gender identity without tipping off Mom and Dad. Official documents and emails and report cards are sent to parents to preserve the child’s birth name and pronouns, concealing the social transition from parents. 

I have talked to parents who discovered their middle-school daughters had spent the better part of an entire academic year known to the entire school as “Spencer” or “Ethan.” One of these girls had even roomed with the boys on an overnight school trip.

I have investigated many cases in which social transitions were concealed from families. In no case did the girl flourish with this new identity. Maintaining a new, secret identity more often became a weight and burden to the girls. Inexplicably to the parents, their daughters became morose, dropped activities they once loved, wore baggier clothing, and begged to cut their hair shorter. The parents became desperate and unsure of what to do. The hidden transition resulted in children’s alienation from loving parents trying to protect them. 

But in the years since I first reported on this practice, political opposition has grown. Parents whose daughters were socially transitioned behind their backs have filed lawsuits against the school districts in California and Florida and Michigan. California public school teachers have sued school districts to block policies that could result in their firing if they inform parents that their children’s names and identities have been changed behind their backs. And a recent statewide initiative in California to require parental notification before a school changes a child’s gender identity as well as ban puberty blockers and gender surgeries for minors garnered over 400,000 signatures, falling just short of making it onto the ballot. 

The SAFETY Act would significantly stymie, if not eliminate, this local pushback to the increasingly unpopular practice of schools playing adoptive parents with other people’s children. (Although already, the Chino Valley Unified School District has filed suit against Newsom over this act.) The plain text of the California law claims that it merely prevents schools from adopting policies that “forcibly out” trans kids—as if confused fifth-grade girls are in the same position as closeted gay adults in decades past who risked arrest and firing for being outed. 

The law’s clever sponsors are typically quiet on the subject of “outing” to whom. The entire school already knows that Lily is now “Tyler.” Teachers will cheerfully share that information with each other, school mental health staff, administrators, and other students. The only ones who don’t get to know are the parents.

A favorite talking point of activists on the left is that with regard to sexual orientation and gender identity, schools must keep secrets with young children to protect them from transphobic and homophobic parents. Even in the most progressive of states, the claim that parents who discover that their child is transgender might abuse or kick her out is used to justify a policy that would otherwise be difficult to understand and impossible to justify.

Aurora Regino is a single mother in California who last year sued the Chico Unified School District for secretly pushing social transition on her then–11-year-old daughter. Regino told me that the “phobia” rationale seemed “ridiculous.” She added, “How is it not outing a kid if you’re telling an entire school that they’re a different sex? That’s outing right there. So everybody knows except the parents? That doesn’t really make any sense to me.”

Erin Friday, a California attorney and author of bills in several states requiring parental notification for any change in a child’s gender identity at school, vented exasperation at the idea that California parents are so homophobic or transphobic they cannot be trusted. “This is California, for crying out loud.”

Regino agreed. “Both my girls are very active. We do swimming, theater, soccer, softball. We are in connection with I don’t know how many families. And there’s not one family that I can think of that we are around that would kick out their kid because they thought that they were ‘nonbinary’ or trans or gay,” she said. “I mean, to me, that’s an extreme statement that these kids are going to get kicked out. Are we saying one in ten thousand? So we’re going to risk the rest of the children and separate them from their parents during the time that they need them the most?” Her now–13-year-old daughter no longer wants to be a boy.

One might think Newsom would realize that a policy this unpopular for Democrats could easily become a political albatross in an election year. Perhaps realizing this, the governor—who is frequently mentioned as a possible 2024 presidential candidate if Biden drops out—when defending the bill resorts to dissembling. On Wednesday, the governor’s press office declared on X that the bill “protects the child-parent relationship by PREVENTING politicians & school staff from inappropriately intervening in family matters & attempting to control if, when & how families have deeply personal conversations.” The bill only “protects” the parent-child relationship if you assume that relationship depends on the parents’ being entirely ignorant of their child’s growing attachment to this new, secret identity.

Governor Newsom also declared: “Under California law, minors CANNOT legally change their name or gender WITHOUT parental consent.” That’s placing a lot of weight on the word legally. The obscurantist governor is correct only in the most technical sense: yes, a child’s legal name can be changed only on official records with parental approval. But in the world of the SAFETY Act, the parents may be the only ones in a child’s life who use that name. 

In the past few years, moderates across the American political spectrum have awakened to the pernicious effects of gender ideology on children. England, Finland, Norway, and Sweden have, in recent years, warned the public of the risks of pediatric gender medicine, banned the use of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones in children, or restricted their use to research settings. The Cass Review, published this year by one of England’s premier physicians, noted the serious risks and specious benefits of pediatric gender transition. My own investigation, published four years earlier, reached the same conclusions. The Cass Review also acknowledged that social transition is an active intervention that puts many children on an inexorable path to medical transition. 

Recent polling shows that voters across the political spectrum believe that schools should be required to inform parents if their children are using different gender pronouns at school than they are at home.

But California Democrats appear ready to drag their party down with them. Parents’ best hope may be federal legislation mandating parental notification before a school can reassign a child’s name and gender. Candidates for president and vice president ought to be asked whether they would support such a bill.

Until her daughter was socially transitioned behind her back, Regino had been a lifelong progressive Democrat. “Now, I’m a registered Republican,” she said.

Abigail Shrier is the New York Times bestselling author of Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up

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July 17, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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