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Buzz, Beep, Chirp: Phones Are An Epidemic In Our Schools

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Recently I asked a hardworking, though often distracted, high school student named Amina how many text messages she received that day during school.

Her answer? 106.

Each text received a response. Two-hundred and twelve tiny messages read and felt, or composed and sent. Links clicked; short videos watched. The perfect song found. Snapchat streaks edited and shared.

Assuming 10 to 15 seconds are lost with each text, Amina skips school for about 45 minutes — roughly the equivalent of one class period — each day without ever leaving her seat.

Amina is in the majority. And the numbers are shocking.

I did the math: In our Boston public school of 400 students, 300 hours of instruction are missed each day. Over the course of the 180-day school year, students will “skip” more than 72,000 classes this year.

The majority of my students are multiple grade-levels behind in core content skills. Phones offer an escape from work and the anxiety that accompanies low performance. Unsurprisingly, students in the past few years are struggling more than ever, despite teachers implementing increasingly tailored instructional techniques and activities that would have seemed unimaginable 20 years ago.

As a solution to this problem, our school piloted a new phone locking system called Yondr, which relies on green, lockable pouches where students keep their phones throughout the day.

The idea with the pouches is simple. You put your phone inside a case that stays with you all day. A strong magnet locks the pouch shut — not unlike the magnets used on theft protection devices. At the end of the day, you tap the pouch against a large magnet located near the school’s front door and retrieve your phone from your pouch.

In September, students had a Yondr orientation. Before implementing the new system, we worked to motivate and inform. We watched videos about the adverse effects of phone usage. We engaged in restorative justice circles about the power of being present during the school day. And, we promised students they could unlock their pouches if they needed to call home.

In our Boston public school of 400 students, 300 hours of instruction are missed each day.

We cited the University of Arkansas study which found that students who brought cell phones with them to classes and exams scored a full letter grade lower (whether or not they checked their phones during classes) than those who left phones back in their dorms.

We read Jean Twenge’s “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation,” published the September issue of The Atlantic, where she writes: “rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

Phones alter dating habits, reduce the number of students holding part-time jobs, and directly contribute to decreased time spent reading and completing homework.

According to Twenge, the number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015. Teens are sleeping less and experiencing increased depression, which can also be directly connected to the isolation experienced during phone use and the desire to continue clicking and scrolling. Even more frightening, “boys’ depressive symptoms increased by 21 percent from 2012 to 2015, while girls’ increased by 50 percent — more than twice as much.” Again, effects linked to phone usage.

Despite all of our efforts — including daily grades for using Yondr and gift cards randomly hidden inside different pouches each day — Yondr died within a few weeks. Most students simply lied and said they didn’t have a phone. Or, they openly refused to lock up the phone. Because our school does not have staffing or funding for detention, and because we cannot make a student turn over private property, our hands were tied.

As a result, teachers struggle to keep students engaged with lessons. Throughout each class I teach, phones are nearly continuously beeping, flashing and vibrating. Most students cannot resist engaging that serotonin surge that accompanies answering that electronic distraction.

Most students cannot resist engaging that serotonin surge that accompanies answering that electronic distraction.

Teachers are spending far too much time and energy playing phone whack-a-mole. In my school, and in the schools where my close friends teach, we are exhausted and frustrated. More than that, we all report spending hours of professional development and staff meeting time fighting amongst ourselves as to what we should do.

Phones are an epidemic in our schools.

Children cannot grow and learn if they cannot focus, if they are experiencing increased levels of depression, and if they are more tired than teens typically are already.

There is a solution: Children can leave their phones at home or lock them up once they arrive to school. As a teacher, I wish we could block cell reception during class time, trusting that school administrators would connect parents and students if an urgent situation arose. Boston Public Schools and other districts around the region must work with parents and community members to implement serious, consequence-driven systems. Our kids' future is at stake.  

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Chris Madson Cognoscenti contributor
Chris Madson teaches high school English in the Boston Public Schools. He is currently a Commonwealth teaching policy fellow with Teach Plus.

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