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Find It Fast

Many Culver Academies students find less is more when it comes to smartphones

Tom Coyne

School leaders working on best phone policy for 2023-24


March 2, 2023

Sophia Markle ’23, Finnley Johnson ’25, and a lot of other students at Culver Academies found less is more when it comes to smartphones.

Culver leaders offered students rewards for taking part in a month-long experiment encouraging them to either give up their smartphones completely for a month or switch to Gabb phones, which have no access to the internet or social media apps. Many students found less time on apps meant more time for sleep. Less time on social media meant more time for homework. Less time texting friends meant more time talking to friends.

“I feel like my friendships grew in the sense of when we were hanging out, we actually talked to each other face-to-face, rather than: ‘Oh, look at this TikTok,’ Really just an all-around healthier life,” Markle said. “I was more productive. I got more homework done. I got it done earlier in the day, so I had CQ free.”

 Johnson had a similar experience.

“I felt better,” Johnson said. “I was getting a lot more sleep and being more efficient in my homework. Once I finished my homework, I didn't have anything to do, so I would just go to sleep. I guess that was good because I felt more energized during the day.”

Johnson said he got a little bored at times, but he spent more time reading.

Markle said she noticed the dining center was louder because more people were talking. Johnson said more cadets were hanging out at the barrack lounge.

“I thought it was more fun, especially in winter when you need more energy,” he said.

Culver leaders are sorting through data collected from students as they work to determine the best cellphone policy for the next school year. A total of 52 students totally gave up their smartphones while 130 students opted for Gabb phones.

“We had more students do something hard core and dramatic than we expected, which is to say either give up their phone completely for the month or do the Gabb phone trial,” said Jen Cerny, a humanities master instructor who heads a committee reviewing Culver’s cellphone policy.

“The phone fast showed that students were happier without their phones,” she said. “It also showed that students need help determining the best ways to use phones in healthy and responsible ways.”

The committee has been studying whether limiting smartphone use can help improve students’ mental health while also improving campus culture by reducing distractions and increasing social interaction.

“Part of the logic behind the 30-day phone fast was to make people curious about that. Is it possible that I can feel healthier and happier if I'm using my phone less?” she said. “If the answer to that question is ‘yes,’ then that kind of suggests that what we do on the phone can be problematic.”  

Cerny said a ninth-grade girl told her that when she got her smartphone back after the monthlong fast that she just felt this wave of stress come over her “because she understood what going back into that space was going to represent.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in adolescent mental health in October, saying its members were caring for young people with soaring rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Numerous studies have shown that social media platforms exacerbate anxiety and depression and that most teenagers access those sites using cellphones.

While cellphones are meant to connect us with each other, it’s having the opposite effect.

“They're not designed to be used responsibly. They're not designed to be used in ways that promote our well-being. App developers, social media platforms, and other companies make more money the less responsible we are and the more unwell we are,” Cerny said.

Culver offered students various options to cut back on their phone use, and each student could choose a different option each week for four weeks. Here were some of the options:

·      No phone use for the week

·      Use a Gabb phone, which allows calls, texts, camera, photo gallery, GPS, weather, and calculator, but no internet or social media

·      No phone before school

·      No phone during the academic day

·      No phone during CQ

·      Delete TikTok

·      Delete social media apps

·      Turn phone to grayscale (black and white)

·      Turn off notifications 

Culver gave students a questionnaire asking them about their experiences, such as: What’s the most important, valuable, or useful thing you do with your phone?; Many students say that they go on their phones “to escape. What are they escaping from?; Think about the way that you use your phone/tech on average. What is the biggest downside or negative effect for you personally?; Based on your observations of others, what percentage of your peers at Culver have healthy/responsible phone/tech habits?; How does the presence of phone across campus affect the community?

Researchers at Yale University and Gabb are reviewing the surveys and plan to share their findings with Culver leaders. Yale is interested in looking at well-being of students.

Cerny said most of the students who cut back on phone use reported positive experiences. Like Markle and Johnson, many students reported being happier and more productive. They also reported feeling less anxious and calmer. Many said it was easier to focus in class and on homework and felt less dependent on their smartphones.


Cadets looking at their phones.


Markle said she could relax in her dorm room at night.

“I stopped caring as much about what I looked like. When I got into the dorm at night, I could change into pajamas, put my hair up, take off my makeup and I didn’t care because I didn’t feel like I had to Snapchat anybody,” she said. “I started falling asleep earlier, too, because I wasn’t going to miss a notification.”

The downsides students reported included finding it more difficult to communicate with parents and friends, challenges with homework and limited music selections on the Gabb phone.

The Culver administration is working with students to come up with a policy that makes room for phones in a way that limits some of the unhealthy downsides and distractions, such as inattentiveness, while positioning students to develop healthy and responsible habits.

Cerny said the hope is that now that students know that they were happier and felt less stress, they will make wiser choices and set up better boundaries. She also hopes students will be receptive to the new policy.

“Because we do need to come up with a plan that is something the students understand and agree with,” Cerny said. “Because it's going to primarily affect them so we want to make sure that there's a lot of student input in the whole process. But we also want to make sure that the students are answering the right question, which is: What is the best phone policy for Culver?”

The committee is looking at four issues to help determine the best phone policies:

·      What policies are most likely to promote social, emotional, and academic flourishing?

·      What polices are most likely to promote independence and college readiness?

·      What policies would make campus feel the most alive and welcoming?

·      What policies are most likely to create a sense of personal agency, control, and responsibility?

“What we don't want to do is wind up having phone policies based on simple convenience. All of the conveniences come with significant costs to individuals and the community,” Cerny said.

Focus groups with student representatives from two students in every grade from every dorm and barrack are helping the committee determine the best policy. The goal is to have the new school policy in place when students return from spring break on April 3, the start of Grading Period 7. That will provide school leaders and students some time to see how it works. Any needed tweaks could be made during Grading Period 8.

Cerny said leaders at Culver are constantly hearing the same message from students: “We’re a college prep school. There's not going to be a phone policy in college. We have to learn how to use phones responsibly here.”

Cerny said that can be taken in two ways. It can be seen as an argument against any cellphone policy. Or it can be seen as: “We need to learn how to use them responsibly because we don't know how to use them responsibly.”

Markle said she believes limiting cellphone use gives students the tools and habits they need to succeed in college.

“I now understand what's good and bad about my phone. There are some great things that come with phones and there's some awful things. I know now I'm productive without my phone, so I need to put it away,” she said.

Markle and Johnson said they went back to using their smartphones after the fast, but they are using them less.

“I don’t really rely on my phone as much as I used to,” Johnson said. “Before the Gabb phone I thought I needed it for every moment of my day. t I really don’t.”

Cerny also said Culver leaders also know that students still have to be given some freedom to make choices.

“They do need practice using them and experiencing the consequences of that, both upside and downside,” she said. “What we want to do is create in our students the habits that they will need to go to college and be successful in college, which is what all of the programming here is about.”

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