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Culver exploring if smartphone limits can help students

Tom Coyne

Culver Academies will be examining whether limiting smartphone use can improve campus culture


August 19, 2022

Culver Academies will be examining this school year whether limiting smartphone use can improve campus culture by cutting down on distractions and increasing social interaction while also improving the mental health of students.

Schools not only across the United States, but across the world, are wrestling with how much access students should have to smartphones. Culver faculty are working to find a smartphone policy that promotes social, emotional, and academic flourishing that encourages independence while also promoting more face-to-face interaction and campus involvement.

“A lot of people have gotten more and more frustrated with the ways that phones seem to interfere with basically everything we find important, whether that's academic accomplishment, or social relationships, or mental health and personal wellness. Phones just seem to be interfering with all of that,” said Jen Cerny, a humanities master instructor who is heading a group of about 40 faculty and staff at Culver Academies who will be taking a look at the issue.

The move comes in the wake of the American Academy of Pediatrics issuing a report in October declaring a national emergency in adolescent mental health, saying its members were caring for young people with soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, and loneliness. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning in March of an accelerating mental health crisis among adolescents, with more than 4 in 10 teens reporting they feel “persistently sad or hopeless.”

Some researchers believe smartphone use may be a factor. Smartphones can make it difficult for students to be fully present for their classwork, their responsibilities, and other aspects of their lives because they’re too worried about social media, texting, or some other smartphone distraction. A survey from the Pew Research Center released Aug. 10 found the share of 13- to 17-year-olds who say they’re “almost constantly” online nearly doubled from 24 percent in 2014-15 to 46 percent today.

Teachers at Culver know that smartphones can be valuable tools. But frequently students aren’t using smartphones as tools for learning.

“It's not the tool aspects that are the problem. It's the toy aspect that is eating up time in ways that can get out of hand,” said Justin Pannkuk, a ninth-grade humanities teacher.

Culver now has students turn in phones by 11 p.m. and retrieve them in the morning as a way of helping to ensure students get a good night's sleep, which studies show is essential to good health. But even that isn’t 100 percent effective because some students sneak in “burner” phones. Some students also spend more time on their smartphones when they’re supposed to be doing homework because they know they are going to lose access soon.

The goal of this yearlong examination is to create a campus conversation that helps students understand that overuse of smartphones can be unhealthy. After all, one of the four Cardinal Virtues at Culver is moderation.

Kurt Christiansen, who teaches Advanced Placement American government, believes putting limits on smartphones takes a burden off students.

“I don’t think we should fool ourselves into believing that they could do both the academic work and the leadership work that we're trying to accomplish here and manage their phone, manage being a teenager, manage their attention, manage their own health and manage their independence. That is a lot,” he said.  

Teachers at Culver were urged at the beginning of the school year to set clear and consistent rules for smartphones that will help students control and focus their attention. The recommended policy is no smartphones in the classroom.

The goal of the yearlong project is to make students more aware of how much time they are spending on smartphones and possible repercussions. Time students spend on smartphones makes it more difficult to achieve personal goals most important to their values.

“How do we make kids become curious about the role that phones are playing in their lives?” Cerny asks. “What can these different experiences show them that would surprise them about their relationship with their phones. Like, ‘I had no idea that I spent seven hours on my phone on Saturday.’ That's a surprise. And then, what insight can follow from that?”

Cerny said students are more likely to use their phones when they’re feeling bad because it’s familiar and comfortable. When people feel stressed, awkward, alone, or uncomfortable, often their first reflex is to reach for the phone.

“But it's also likely that it's the use of the phone that's causing the thing that's making them feel bad,” Cerny said. 

It’s also probably adding stress because the time on the phone makes it harder to do homework, understand what is happening in class or to engage in leadership, among other things. The goal is to help students make better decisions about whether phones are helping them achieve their highest goals and values or getting in the way.

Among the changes students will be asked to try is to disable notifications to avoid unnecessary interruptions; disabling face ID or thumbprint ID to make it more inconvenient to use the phone; to move “problem apps” to a distant screen in a folder; and to switch the color display off, because a black-and-white screen makes phones less interesting.

They also will be asked to use app limits in settings; to track screen time and to set a specific goal, such as to cut down on screen time by 10 percent. Students also will be asked to delete an app for a day or a week; to leave their phone behind for a day; to “fast’ from their phones for a certain time period; or to ask their parents to set up parent controls.

The study also will examine whether there should be different limits on different grades because what works best for a 14-year-old may not work as well for an 18-year-old.

“I think everybody is going to have some learning to do and it will be a little bit uncomfortable and confusing as we learn that it’s possible to accomplish things like making plans and connecting with family without having constant access to phones. I hope that the experience we have as a community is that we're just trying different things,” she said.

The faculty wants to look at doing phone fasts of a day, a week and possibly even a month. The teachers know the idea of a monthlong fast will meet some opposition. But Cerny said studies have shown that it takes that long for people to reset their brains’ reward systems and to realize all the benefits of being smartphone free.

Culver faculty are reading Anna Lembke’s book “Dopamine Nation,” to better understand how our brains are motivated to seek rewards. They also are reading Nir Eval’s book “Indistractable,” and James Williams’ book “Stand Out of Our Light”

Culver leaders know adolescents can go long periods without smartphones. Students attending Culver Summer Schools & Camps aren’t allowed to use smartphones for the six weeks they are on campus.

“Culver is an immersive experience. It requires your presence,” Cerny said. “That's an attentional presence, a social presence, an emotional presence, and all of that is compromised when we have phones out too much.”

The teachers say most students know they should cut back on smartphone use.

“I think the students recognize all of this. They really do. But they don't know what to do. They need some support to make better choices,” she said. “And they also need an accumulation of experiences existing differently with their phones so that they can understand that life might be better if they had loess of a role on campus.”

Pannkuk views it as a chance for Culver, which places an emphasis on leadership, to set an example.

“Maybe what we learn can help other schools. I think this could be a chance for Culver to make a step that will help us be a leader amongst our peers,” he said.


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