As I sat in the balcony at UVic’s Farquhar Auditorium earlier this year, enjoying one of our school concerts, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the bright lights below. Students who were waiting to perform, or who had finished performing, were seated in the first few rows of the theatre. I was disappointed to see several of them spend the concert buried in their phone screens. Some students felt that even during a live show, their friends and classmates on stage didn’t deserve their full attention.
What message does this send to our community?
This kind of situation at times happens in classrooms, too. We know students pull out their phones when they think nobody is watching or when they have a bit of free time. This is one reality of being a school that embraces technology.
SMUS’s approach is Bring Your Own Device. We encourage students to bring their laptops or cellphones to school as tools to support their education. Our goal is to have technology support learning, not drive the learning. There are an abundance of apps, programs and resources students access that enhances their learning. If they are accessing these resources with their cellphones, it is acceptable cellphone use at school.
A Bring Your Own Device approach means students will also always have access to social media and games. It’s also not unusual to see students standing in the stairways sending texts or checking Instagram.
In recent chats with teachers, parents and even students, I’ve been asked, about our cellphone policy. What do we consider “acceptable cellphone use at school”? Even more direct, how are we mitigating the potential for cellphone addiction and distraction?
Addiction or dependency is a new challenge teens, parents and educators are all facing together. But it’s clear to see why that’s the case. Social and gaming apps have teams of people working to make their app more addictive to use. They want users to spend more of their free time on their app. They offer incentives and challenges so people sign in every day. It’s no wonder many teenagers and adults can’t ignore their phones; there’s a whole industry trying to keep us logged on.
Research shows that youth addicted to social media, the internet and gaming tend to experience decreased functions in parts of the brain that regulate emotions, decision-making and impulse control. They also experience increased levels of social loneliness.
One study that I found alarming came from ‘The Mobile Youth Report’ through the National Center for Health Statistics (U.S.). It found that:
- 81% of youth under 25 sleep with their phone next to them;
- 74% reach for the smartphones right after waking up;
- 97% of teens regularly use their smartphones in the bathroom.
Striking a Balance
We are not looking to ban cellphones at SMUS. That is simply unrealistic, unfair and it would be a nightmare to police. We have explored how that approach would serve our community and we don’t think it would serve us well. If students are coming to campus with a cellphone their parents gave them, what is our obligation as a school? We are partners, with parents, ensuring that we help teach our students to make smart and responsible decisions around their technology use.
SMUS teachers are discussing how we strike an acceptable balance between educational and personal cellphone use. We have implemented some phone restrictions at SMUS: phones aren’t allowed in Brown Hall or in the chapel. And boarding students have a tech curfew at nights, as one way to encourage better sleep habits. In addition, we have homerooms and classes taking part in tech-free challenges or weekend-long detoxes.
But our policy needs to better outline acceptable conduct using technology and when it is appropriate to use. Our goal is to ensure students use technology responsibly. We also want them to know the positive and negative effects that come with using their cellphones.
We are currently revising our technology policy from our discussions with teachers, parents and students. We will set clearer boundaries and expectations, particularly in the Middle School years. We’ll also engage students in conversations about the addictive element of their devices and we’ll discuss their own tech habits.
On Tuesday, as part of Health and Wellness Week, we held a parent Spark Night where we watched the documentary Screenagers. The movie addresses the addictive and destructive element of cellphones, gaming and technology. Our Middle School students also watched the film this week. The conversation about what is best for the age and stage of our children is one that we will have together, as parents, students and a school.
I am optimistic that a shift in our policies will not be too dramatic. I also don’t think it will be difficult for students to manage. I’m proud of our students in Brown Hall and in the Snowden Library at lunch: the kids are engaged in conversations with their friends, they’re playing chess, quietly colouring or collectively tackling the large crossword puzzle on the wall.
We know many of our students can and do use their cellphones responsibly. But to foster a culture where that’s the norm, we will continue to revisit our approach and have these conversations. I look forward to our next concert at UVic (Cross-Campus Strings concert on April 20) and I hope that students and parents put their phones away and immerse themselves in the music.