Skip To Main Content

Find It Fast

Culver to limit smartphone use to reduce student anxiety, improve campus culture

Tom Coyne
Humanities master instructor Jen Cerny goes over the new smartphone policy at Culver Academies with student ambassadors who helped shape the policy. (Photo by Sloan Losch)

May 5, 2023

Culver Academies students will be required to keep smartphones concealed in backpacks, purses or in some other zippered container during most of the academic day starting Monday in a move aimed at lessening student anxiety and creating a more positive learning environment.

Students will be required to keep the phones in zippered containers during classes, in academic buildings, in the dining hall and in Eppley Auditorium. Students aren’t allowed to keep their phones in their pockets. Students also aren’t allowed to have phones at all at Culver Memorial Chapel or during Spiritual Life services.

Students will be allowed limited use of phones while outside, at the Lay Student Center, at The Shack, at the Siegfreid Fitness Center, and at Huffington Library and during closed quarters. During those times, students can use their phones to make quick plans, to make quick email checks, and to pay for purchases. They should not be used for checking social media during these times.

Students also are not allowed to use their smartphones while walking on campus. They should step to the side of the walkway and use their phone briefly while at a standstill.

Students are free to use their smartphones as they see fit while in their dorms or barracks or while off campus, although athletes on sports trips must adhere to rules set by their coach.

Culver leaders announced the new smartphone policy to students and parents on Friday. The policy seeks to create a community the students, faculty, and parents all want by reducing distractions and increasing social interaction. The policy seeks to give students reasonable access to their cellphones while creating healthy personal technology habits. The policy also seeks to create a unified experience for all.

Culver is putting limitations on smartphone use to help improve the mental well-being of students. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning last year of an accelerating mental health crisis among adolescents, with more than 4 in 10 teens reporting they feel “persistently sad or hopeless.” Numerous studies have shown that the drop in teen well-being coincided with the rise in smartphones.

Jen Cerny, a humanities master instructor who has been heading a committee reviewing Culver’s cellphone policy, said surveys and talks she’s had with students show that they are in favor of some form of smartphone restrictions.

“They are actually begging us to create limits. They are entirely overwhelmed by their sense of responsibility to their phones and all that they have to keep up with,” Cerny said.

The policy seeks a balance between a student’s need to access their smartphones with what is best for creating a friendly, attentive campus atmosphere.


Humanities instructor Jen Cerny meets with students during lunch to talk about the smartphone policy at Culver Academies. (Photo by Andrew Crowell)


Culver will be testing the new policy during the four-week Grading Period 8 that starts Monday as a test run for the policy that will be in place during the 2023-24 school year. Cerny said there will be tweaks along the way.

“Because there is a 0% probability that we're going to get this 100% right the first time,” she said.

She said she knows there will be some pushback from students.

“Nobody is getting everything they want,” she said. “The message is that students should be aware of the effect their use of their phone is having on other people.”

“Watch for the effects of ‘technoference.’ Because we’ve all been in situations where someone pulls out their phone, then somebody else pulls out their phone, and then you have this domino of phones coming out,” she said.

Humanities instructor Justin Pannkuk, who with Cerny led a committee of faculty members looking into the cellphone issue, said students support cellphone limits in general.

“They also think it’s terrible when a friend pulls out a phone and ruins community time. They report that again and again,” Pannkuk said. “This isn’t just our concern. This is directly from the students.”

Students who violate the smartphone policy during the four-week trial will have to turn in their phones for three days. If 20 or more cellphones are turned in at the same time, Culver Academies will switch to more stringent rules where students will have to keep their phones in their barracks or dorms for most of the day.

The policy will be less stringent on weekends.

Culver leaders are hoping peer pressure will help encourage students to adhere to the phone policy. Culver faculty and staff have been told to confiscate cellphones from any student caught using them when or where they shouldn’t. There will be no warnings.

Cerny said the hope is that students will warn classmates violating the phone policy.

“If it’s important enough for them to have their phones on their person, they need to develop the ‘won’t-power’ and sense of personal and community responsibility to keep their cellphones away and to help everybody else to remember that the place for phones is away,” Cerny said. “Students remind. Teachers enforce.”

During the 2023-24 school year, students caught violating the rules will have to turn their smartphones in to Student Life for a week.


Humanities instructor Justin Pannkuk talks with students about the smartphone policy at Culver Academies. (Photo by Tom Coyne)


Cerny said the phone confiscation may appear harsh at first glance, but school leaders thought students needed to be encouraged to follow the rules.

“If you make the cost of breaking a rule too low then you're increasing the probability of students breaking the rule,” Cerny said. “We’re hoping the 72-hour phone penalty is enough of an incentive for them to keep their phones away.”

Students will continue to be required to turn in their phones to counselors no later than 10:30 p.m. each night. Phones are made available to students by no later than 8 a.m.

There are no restrictions on laptops.

The new policy was developed by faculty and school leaders in cooperation with students. Cerny and Pannkuk held numerous meetings and chat sessions with students to gather their input. That included holding weekly meetings with at least two students from every grade level from every barracks and dorm, with about 130 students involved overall.

“This isn’t the adult community imposing our will on students. This has very much been an entirely collaborative process,” Cerny said.

Pannkuk said the students acted as “ambassadors.”

“They came to these meetings bringing thoughts, concerns, updates from students,” Pannkuk said. “They also acted as a channel where we could communicate through them to other students. It’s very important to us that students know why we’re working toward the things we were working toward. It also gave them a voice, so they knew they were being heard by many adults on campus.”

School leaders will continue to meet with the student-ambassadors throughout next year to learn what students think about the smartphone policy.

Cerny said one thing school leaders learned from talking with students and parents was the need to allow students to have access to their phones during CQ because for many parents that is the only time of the day they can communicate with their children.

“The very last thing we want to do is separate kids from families because we understand that families are an essential part of students’ well-being, their happiness, and their connection. We’re not touching CQ,” she said.

Cerny told the Culver Parent Association board last week that parents have been supportive of the school’s plan to limit smartphone use and the reasoning behind it. The goal is to create a more positive learning environment.

Cerny said one problem Culver students reported encountering was “secondhand screens,” comparing it to secondhand smoke. She said some teachers allow students who finish assignments early to use their smartphones.

She said that becomes a challenge for students struggling in a subject because now they are not only struggling with the assignment they are working on, they also are thinking about their smartphones.

“That’s where a student is paying a tax for somebody else’s phone use. They take away more than they give,” she said.

Earlier this spring, Culver leaders offered students rewards for taking part in a monthlong 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 reported they found that less time on apps and social media, and texting meant more time for sleep, homework and talking to friends.

Parents of children who took part in the study said they found it “revelatory.”

“Probably the most important thing that came out of that is that families who had children who were participating in the challenges found work arounds for all of those default ways of otherwise communicating using text and all that,” Cerny said.

Cerny said Culver will develop resources to let parents know about parental controls they can use to help ensure their students are following the rules as well as letting them know about options, such as Gabb phones and the Opal app, a digital well-being assistant the helps people better monitor and manage their screen-usage time.  

Some students set up restrictions for their smartphones on their own.

“Students who were willing to try it almost universally reported very positive outcomes, like, ‘Yes, I was able to set my own limits during CQ, I was more productive.’ Or, ‘I used it during social time so I wouldn’t be distracted by my phone,’ ” Pannkuk said.

Cerny said it was interesting to see how students changed about their phones as the school year wore on.

“It became increasingly clear that they reflected a lot on their community on their personal use of technology, on how they might affect others with how they use technology,” she said. “They also are honest about their own limitations. They understand that being responsible and exerting self-control is really hard.”


Humanities instructors Jen Cerny and Justin Pannkuk talk with the Culver Parents Assocation Board about the smartphone policy. (Photo by Tom Coyne)

Subscribe to our Newsletter


The Culver Cannon Newsletter is sent out weekly on Fridays.

More Recent News