The SMUS Senior School in September always has an unmistakable vibrancy to it. This year will be no exception and will feature the fresh new energy of the gorgeous Sun Centre, which houses our dining hall and student commons. If you look carefully, you will also notice brand new blue signs reminding students and faculty to “Be Present. Phones Off and Away.”
This year the Senior School is approaching smartphones more intentionally. With the input of students, faculty and the best available research, we crafted a new smartphone policy that rolls out at the start of the school year. Note that the language in our policy is not that of a ban on phones. We are asking students to keep their phones off and away when in public spaces, and with other students. That phones should be off and away in the classroom goes without saying. Additionally, cell phones are not to be used in the dining hall, the school chapel, during homeroom, or in assembly.
The driving force behind this shift was the wellness of our students. Our main goal is to decrease the time students spend on screens while increasing face-to-face interaction with one another. We believe this move will have a positive impact on our students’ mental health and on our school culture.
During several student focus groups we held this past spring, I was struck by how widely students recognized the need for this shift. They clearly understood that most students are spending too much time on their phones, and as the conversations unfolded it became evident that technology was beginning to negatively impact student interaction. This was another motivating factor behind this process, as seeing groups of kids collectively on their phones and not interacting with one another was becoming a concern. This fall, students will be reminded to be in the moment and enjoy the company of their peers.
Smartphones and Mental Health
Smartphones are marvels of modern technology, and when used properly can be powerful tools for learning. Unfortunately, with the good also comes some bad and the impact of excessive screen time on the developing adolescent brain is concerning.
Articles outlining the harm of excessive screen time and social media use have become ubiquitous. We know our kids face a constant pressure to be online and one of the most significant consequences of this is having social media follow them to previously safe spaces, namely their homes. The reality is that social media can sometimes be a stream of negative information, and at its worse, can facilitate mean behaviour and bullying. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that excessive screen time is impacting students’ mental health. A clear picture is emerging, and we now know that increased screen time puts students at significantly greater risk for both depression and anxiety. We know that teens who spend more time on screens are more likely to report being unhappy, with the opposite also being true. This is our call to action.
A parallel story is also being told by a group of former app developers from Silicon Valley. Feeling pangs of remorse, they are coming clean about how smartphones and their apps—Snapchat, Instagram, and many other student favourites—are designed by psychologists with the intention of addicting users. While I’ll skip the hard science, developers used variable reward strategies to tap into users’ dopamine loops, creating an addictive experience that has effectively hooked our kids on their phones. It’s no wonder many tech executives report enrolling their kids in nature schools absent of screens and modern technology.
Royal Roads University neuroscientist Dr. Paul Mohapel warns that students are increasingly distracted in the classroom, and confirms the addictive quality of devices, citing compulsion, a lack of control, and negative emotions associated with their use—the hallmarks of addiction. Mohapel is most concerned about how constant screen time taxes our prefrontal cortexes, making it difficult to focus and learn—an effect that is perhaps most pronounced when gaming is the activity of choice. In crafting our new policy, we followed Dr. Mohapel’s suggestion of setting boundaries and limits around the use of digital devices. Note: Dr. Mohapel will be speaking at the school on the evening of October 1 as part of our Spark Parent Lecture Series, the details of which will come in the near future.
As with any significant shift, there will be struggles, and there will be questions. Will Senior School students be able to access their phones to check their calendar or send an emergency message during the school day? Yes. Our emphasis is on responsible use. If students need to use their phones in a productive way, they are welcome to do so. If it involves a conversation, they will be encouraged to exercise good phone etiquette and excuse themselves from a group situation.
With all this information coming to light, why not ban them? In a world so driven by technology, and an education that often plays out on digital platforms, we know there will be times Senior School students need to check their phones or access them during class upon their teachers’ request. Our mission is preparing students for higher learning and for life; the hope is that this policy will be more effective than a ban at teaching healthy smartphone habits.
How can parents help?
We hope that you, as parents, will help support us with this shift. Firstly, there should be an ongoing conversation between parents and students about technology, social media and the general online world. Talk about this shift with your kids. Ask them how they are enjoying being untethered from their phones. Ask them about some of the challenges. The other thing parents can do is get phones out of the bedroom. Kids who sleep with their phones in their rooms are far less likely to get the recommended nine hours of sleep and are more likely to struggle with maintaining a healthy relationship with their devices.
If you need to contact your son or daughter during the school day, please recognize that with the off-and-away philosophy, their response time will likely be longer. Parents can support this initiative by only communicating with your children if it is completely necessary. In the case of an emergency, the best way to get a hold of them quickly is by contacting the school.
This information will be clearly communicated to students in the opening days of the school year, with ample support and time given to clarify any uncertainties. The school operates through the lens of what is best for students, and given what we know about this challenge we believe this is an important step to maintain a strong school culture and best serve our students’ wellness. We intentionally framed the language on our signage in the positive, reminding students to ‘Be Present’, and we are excited for students to re-discover the joy of each other’s company.