Powering Down Cellphone Use in Middle Schools
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As vice principal of Pennsville Middle School in New Jersey, Adam J. Slusher knows he’s not always going to be Mr. Popularity.
But there was a much different reaction this past July, after Slusher sent a message to the homes of Pennsville’s 450 students spanning grades 6 to 8. The email blast announced a new cellphone policy for the school. Starting in September, as Slusher explained in the message – which also went out to the school’s 60 faculty and staff members – the use of cellphones by Pennsville students would be prohibited during school hours for any reason.
Phones, he emphasized, “are to be turned OFF” and stowed away in backpacks or handbags, not carried or tucked into back pockets.
Ditto with the staff, who in conversations with Slusher and Carels had reported on the rampant use of phones in the cafeteria and hallways – confirming what both of them had seen.
“They were telling us, ‘You’ve got to do something about the phones’” Slusher recalls. “They were delighted that a clear policy was now going to be in place.”
The overwhelming majority of Pennsville parents have also supported the new policy, especially, when presented with some of the sobering evidence about the extent of phone use among this population. One study Slusher cited in his email showed that the average middle school child is spending between 6 and 9 hours a day on screens.
She and collaborator Lisa Tabb were driven to do “Away for the Day” while working on Screenagers, their award-winning 2016 film examining the impact of social media, videos, and screen time on youngsters and their families that also offered tips for better navigating the digital world.
“Over 3 years of making the film, I was visiting schools all over the country,” Ruston says. “By the end, I was seeing devices all over the place, even in elementary schools. When I’d ask a student in the hall, ‘What’s the policy?’ they would shrug and say ‘I don’t know.’ When I got the same reaction from teachers – who in many cases were left to decide on their own, so that they had to be the bad guys – I realized there was a problem here.”
As even a casual glance in the homeroom of every high school or college lecture hall will confirm, phone use is high in teenagers and young adults. But Ruston and Tabb decided to focus on middle schools.
“That’s the age where we know schools are facing the most challenges,” Ruston says. “This is also the age when social centrality becomes a major focus for youth. Thus, the pull to be on social media games, where their peers are, is incredibly enticing.”
Indeed: A recent study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that middle schoolers who compulsively check social networks on their phones appear to have changes in areas of the brain linked to reward and punishment.
It was in middle schools, she concluded, “where effective policies on cellphones are most needed.”
That trend has given many schools, including Pennsville, the drive to adopt an Away for the Day-type policy. As part of the program, Ruston’s website provides ammunition against the kinds of pushback they might expect to get. One of the most common is the idea that banning cellphone use among middle school children is a misguided, anti-technology measure.
Ruston estimates that about 10,000 middle schools are now using various pieces of the Away for the Day campaign, which includes videos, posters, fact sheets, and other materials. Other schools have adopted similar measures in the same spirit.
Predictable and Calm? Not So Much
When Katherine Holden was named principal of Oregon’s Talent Middle School last year, one of the first things she wanted to do was create some structure for the routines of students (and parents) who were frazzled after 2 years of remote learning, staggered schedules, and mask mandates.
For this school year, Holden is using a new and clearly articulated policy: “Devices are put away from the first bell to the last bell,” she says. “We want them to have a focus on other things. We want them to be socializing, interacting with their peers face-to-face, thinking about getting to class. We want them making eye contact, asking questions. Learning how to make a friend face-to-face. Those are important developmental social skills they should be practicing.”
Instead of scrolling through photos on Instagram, watching trending videos on TikTok, or texting their friends.
Like Slusher, she announced the new cellphone policy last summer, in a letter sent home to parents along with the list of school supplies their children would need.
“They don’t like it all, to be honest,” he says. “But they understand it’s for their benefit. When we sold it to them at our beginning-of-the-year meeting, we presented our rationale. From the kids I speak to, I think the majority understand why we’re doing it.”