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Should School be a Screen Free Zone?

The problem of having a smartphone in class, plus some useful tips

Should school be a screen free zone?
Should school be a screen free zone?

The fact that the average teenager spends approximately nine hours a day on some sort of entertaining media* and tweens about six (excluding school time or homework time), is not news anymore (according to common sense media’s research). Unfortunately, the total amount of hours stretches when we add the time spent on devices at school. In recent years we find more and more children bring their devices to school, use it during recess, and sometimes even during class — not just for school related work. This change brings the hours consumed a day to be much higher.

As an expert on the subject and as a parent myself, I get to speak with many parents and educators about this pain point. I hear many stories of when, where, and how our kids use their phones. If before, stories were contained to after school hours and the weekend, recent stories started to take place at school and even in the classroom. Just recently a mom shared with me her story, this story was my inspiration for this article. Juliana, her real name is saved with me, is a mother of a 9th grader. Juliana got a text from her daughter, Samantha (also not her real name). So far no big deal, the problem was that the text came in a middle of a school day, while Samantha was suppose to be in class, English class to be precise. The text had a request and a link to buy “this cute sweater”. Mom was confused, Samantha is texting when she is supposed to be focusing in class?! Mom texted back a quick question and Samantha confirm that English class is in session, and she is sitting in. Samantha is physically present at her English class, however her mind isn’t.

I really want to tell you it was only this one story, but it is one of many. Texting while at school, and even during class is a common phenomenon these days.

Don’t take it from me, a student survey shows students admitting using their phones in class, and the majority of them (72–77%) feel that when they are texting, it affects their abilities to learn. So they know it’s wrong, and they know they should not do it, but they can’t help it. When asked about their friends texting and if it makes a difference, a third said that their ability to learn was affected even if they were not texting, but their friends were.

I’m not surprised to see the statistics. I know I react when I hear the notification sound, even if it is not on my phone, wouldn’t you!? Once I react, it means my brain stop focusing on the task in hand and start focusing on my phone. The same goes with our kids.

When they use their phones during class it is clear that they do not pay attention to the teacher. If you read my multitasking article you know we don’t really multitask but we switch between tasks. Our brain cannot focus on two things at the same a time. Why? Because we are only one person with only one brain. Neurologically speaking, it has been proven to be impossible.

When the phone is present in class our children are bound to check it, if it’s because of a notification on a message, or any other activity that feels much more fun than talking about Shakespeare or the American Revolution.

Texting can wait while class is in session

There is a Solution

We need to work together, students, parents, and faculty to find the right balance, only together we can manage the ideal use (if any) of smartphones during school hours.

Looking at ourselves in the mirror

We need to start at home, discussing our responsibilities and setting an example. At school our responsibilities are to learn. When you speak with your child, ask how they think they should avoid using their devices at school. Some tips I would like for you to consider in the discussion are:

  • Turn off notifications and keep the phone on silent — This one is beneficial for balancing tech consumption everywhere, even for us parents. Remember, you should set an example too.
  • Keep the phone on “do not disturb” mode while at school — I’m sure the kids know how to, but in case you’d like to know as well — this is what you need to do for Apple or Android device:).
  • Out of sight out of mind — Make it as a habit to store the phone at the locker or at the bottom of the backpack as soon as entering school grounds. This will give them time to interact with their friends, and show them that everything can wait for after school. When they pull out the “emergency” card, I answer “in case of an emergency, you can always call me using the school’s office phone”.
  • There is time for screens after school — We know they’ll need to catch up with what happened on-line once school is over. Make sure to designate a time after school for them to plug back in. Maybe as soon as they get home, just before starting with homework or after school activities. Just make sure the phone is not with them when they do their homework (for more on why, check out this article).

Team work, means at school too

Different schools have different policies to manage personal device use. If your school does not have a policy, I suggest reaching out to the principle and suggesting some of the below. And if they do have rules and regulations, ask for more details, it may be the time for refreshing them up.

  • School policy of no phones’ zone** — This is a school rule that forbids the use of phones while school is in session. Any device should be stored at the student’s lockers till the last bell rings. Phones are not to be used even during recess. I spoke with the superintendent somewhere in NY, he shared that they have this rule in place for some of their middle schools. The kids were told of this rule, like all other school rules, at the beginning of their school year, explaining to them that if they use the phone it will be taken away. Teachers enforce this rule and phones are being confiscated for the day. By October both sides take it seriously. While teachers enforce this rule, students fear of losing their phones is stronger than the temptation. For this age group it works.
  • Deposit your phone at the teacher’s desk — Not every school can enforce a comprehensive rule of no phones at school. That’s where this rule of dropping the phone at the teacher’s desk once getting into the classroom, comes into place. No phones in the classroom is similar to a rule you may have in your own home. Setting a designated box for the students to place their phones while class is in session. The only thing students need to remember is to put the phone on silent, otherwise this box may start ringing in the middle of the class and create a bigger distraction. Phones should be picked up as soon as the bell rings. I find this rule perfect for the sneaky texter that surf the web for a sweater in the middle of class :).
  • Personal computers only at the front row — Some students have the privilege of having a laptop with them in class. This is a wonderful solution for those who need the help of technology to record their notes. However, this can become a problem for the wandering mind of a teenager. A creative teacher told me she sits all the children that use laptops at the front row. They know they can’t hide their screens sitting so close to the teacher. She also reported, to my surprise, that other students will call out a student if they wondered to the dark web or the news.

I appreciate the creative solutions coming from both students and teacher to help balance technology usage at school. I am sure you have other ideas. If you do, please share them below at the comments section so others can be inspired!

I shared with Juliana, the mom of the 9th grader, the rules I shared with you. She and Samantha agreed to give it a try. They will start with the phone at the bottom of the backpack before mom will consider reaching out to the school and having them place new regulations. Both promised to keep me posted!

Technology is a wonderful tool but if used at school for purposes other than learning can be counterproductive. Let’s help keep our kids stay focused on school and school related work. Other things can wait!

* Media refers to smartphones, video games, game consoles etc.

** There is an exception to every rule. Obviously if your child need the phone for health purposes, the phone should not be stored at their locker. However, you can use other tools like setting the phone on “do not disturb” mode, to make sure it is used only for what intended.

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