Can we talk? Schools try to wrest cell phones from students’ hands

October 1, 2017
4 boys around a game

El Cerrito students play at West Contra Costa Unified's Korematsu Middle School during recess before the Covid-19 pandemic. The district has hired a new superintendent, Kenneth "Chris" Hurst, who will begin May 17.

Three hundred and fifty 8th-graders stood around empty-handed after lunch on the courtyard at Fred Korematsu Middle School last week, forming a throw-back tableau that represented one school’s attempt to revive the art of the face-to-face conversation. No earbuds. No head phones. No music. No photos. No bent necks. No phones.

In the first hour of the first day of the school year, the staff broke the news to 718 7th- and 8th-graders that they would no longer be allowed to use their cell phones during free time. The decision to restrict cell phone use came after an experiment with laissez-faire monitoring ran amok, said Matthew Burnham, the youngish, chatty principal of Korematsu Middle School in El Cerrito in the East Bay Area.

“Last year, we made the attempt to see how things worked with cell phones — to say, go ahead, use them at lunchtime and passing period,” said Burnham, who has been at the school for 10 years, including seven as principal. “It was clear by the end of the year we would never do that again.”

Harsh comments posted on Snapchat and Instagram spread agitation among some students — “mostly it was trash-talking back and forth,” Burnham said. A couple of distraught parents infiltrated social media to stop what was going on with their children, a “bad choice,” said school psychologist Kathleen Hazard. Seventh-grade English teacher Sarah La Due caught a student with a cell phone wedged inside a book in class, pretending to read. And the tops of students’ heads were mostly what Burnham saw at lunch. “You’d see 20 kids sitting at a table and they’re all looking down at their phones,” he said. “I’d get on the microphone and say, ‘You need to talk to the person next to you — at least say hi, how was your day,'” he said.

Credit: Jane Meredith Adams/EdSource

What’s missing from this photo of students at Korematsu Middle School? Cell phones.

Cell phones are bedeviling schools across the country as high percentages of high school and middle school students have smart phones and at least some students use them, surreptitiously or openly, to socialize during the day. Burnham estimates 95 percent of his students have a cell phone, meaning 618 cell phones are on campus, and most of them are smart phones with ready access to all manner of distractions. Daytime texting, social media commenting and game-playing create a web of unseen personal interactions, some positive, some not, leaving adults without a clue even as they work to help students develop their social and emotional skills. And new research is raising alarms that preteens and teenagers increasingly are foregoing in-person time with friends in favor of time on social media and are more unhappy because of it.

Or as 8th-grader Tasia Wilburn, 13, said of her phone, “Without it, I feel lonely, ’cause your phone’s like your best friend.”

Most schools don’t allow students to be on their phones during class, unless teachers specifically ask students to wake up their devices to research a topic, photograph a homework assignment or record audio or video; students who don’t have phones are directed to laptops. Some districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest in the state, already have policies forbidding cell phones during lunch and passing periods. How thoroughly the policy is enforced varies by school, students say; some teachers tire of confiscating phones. And if students are allowed to go off-campus during lunch, one can assume all bets are off.

“I think the majority of schools are overwhelmed,” said Liz Kolb, a clinical assistant education professor at the University of Michigan and the author of the book “Learning First, Technology Second: The Educator’s Guide to Designing Authentic Lessons.” She suggests schools post hallway reminders for students to get off their devices and talk to each other. “Positive mobile mental health” conversations should begin in late elementary school, she said. “They need to know that if you’re on your phone more than two hours a day, it creates the potential for depression and anxiety,” she said, referencing research including this study on social isolation and this one on Facebook use.

No one tracks the cell phone policies schools have or how well they are enforced, but some schools are starting to help students step away from their phones and hang out in real life. This year, Corona del Mar Middle School in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District created a “cell phone free zone” around the lunch area in an effort to get students talking. “We’re giving students permission to put it away,” said Annette Franco, a spokeswoman for Newport-Mesa Unified. “So many times it’s used as a barrier to socializing.” In the Glendale Unified School District, at least two middle schools have done what Korematsu has begun: require cell phones to be off and out of sight during lunch, said Kristine Nam, a spokeswoman for Glendale Unified.

And about 500 school parent associations in California, and more than 5,000 schools across the U.S., have shown the documentary “Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age.” The film tracks Delaney Ruston, a Seattle doctor, the producer of “Screenagers” and an alumna of Berkeley High, as she talks with her children, interviews experts and navigates the use of cell phones and video games.

“What I find most astonishing is how complacent our society has been in allowing cell phones to become such a dominant presence in kids’ lives in so many realms,” she said. She added, “It’s not too late. I think parents can unite and schools and teachers can come forward and start to reevaluate the pros and cons of cell phones.”

The constant pull of the device begins, Ruston said, with the brain’s hard-wired interest in gathering new information. Each ping on the phone releases a jolt of dopamine, a brain chemical connected to pleasure. Dopamine can be hard to resist and a distracted brain can become the normal state, without our awareness. One study by researchers at the University of Texas and UC San Diego found the presence of a cell phone — even if it’s face down on the desk or in a bag, on silent — limited a person’s thinking and memory. Another study, published by a journal of the London School of Economics and Political Science, found that student test scores rose in four schools that banned cell phones, with most of the rise occurring among the lowest-achieving students.

Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, wrote in a September article in The Atlantic that the rise of cell phones and social media has created a generation that spends less time with friends and more time alone in their rooms on their phones. Citing data from The Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and designed to be nationally representative, Twenge said that teenagers who spend more time online than they do with their friends are the most likely to report being lonely and feeling left out.

“Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media,” Twenge wrote. “The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.”

Back at Korematsu, lunch is a spicy chicken sandwich, apple-grape juice and jalapeno chips. A lunch room monitor on the microphone calls out “Tony!” and tells 8th-grader Tony Lucca Lambert, 13, to go out to the courtyard if he’s finished eating. Four weeks into the new policy, Tony said he was okay with not using his cell phone, but he’d like a few more options. A group of boys played a lively game of basketball, but if you weren’t part of that, high-energy outlets were scarce. Football and tag games have to be subdued, he said. “They need to provide us with something else to do,” he said

Burnham, wearing a cool pair of shades and surveying the courtyard, said the noise of conversation is up. Clumps of students sat on the concrete steps. Three 8th-graders played an intense game of Connect 4 on a travel-size board. Eighth-grader Matteo Bense, 13, performed yo-yo tricks. Heading into the lunch room, 8th-grader Money Green, 13, noted that the no-cell-phone-use policy has required an adjustment in how he communicates. “It’s easier on the phone,” he said. “If you talk in person, you have to think of what to say.”

So far, said Hazard, the school psychologist, she has not heard of students reeling from hurtful remarks on social media, though she has helped some students sort through social media thoughtlessness over the summer.

After school, the cell phones were out and on. “I check to see if my mom texted me,” said 7th-grader Lisset Solorzano, 12. “She’s calling me right now!”

Grace Wolfman, 12, who was hanging out with three friends on the Korematsu  grounds after school, said cell phone troubles come when students try to mimic what they see on TV — a world she described as one of light-skinned, beautiful people upset because they don’t have a million followers on social media. “All the TV shows have so much drama,” she said.

Seventh grader Janeil Guada, 12, thought the no-cell-phones-at-lunch policy made sense, given the way phones interrupt and demand attention. “It would be nice to have a phone that wasn’t so addictive,” he said.

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