A prin­ci­pal’s ex­per­i­ment got teens to turn off phones

Texarkana Gazette - - FEATURES - By Gail Rosen­blum

“The boys and girls text each other at 3 or 4 in the morn­ing and they walk in here (school) and they can’t func­tion.” —Diane Smith

Diana Smith is grow­ing so con­cerned about the po­ten­tial per­ils of technology on kids’ psy­ches and be­hav­ior that she de­vised a re­fresh­ing so­lu­tion this sum­mer.

Call it pay-per-not-view.

Smith, prin­ci­pal at the Washington Latin Pub­lic Char­ter School in Washington, D.C., chal­lenged her eighth- and ninth-grade stu­dents to put down their phones, lap­tops, tablets and video game con­soles for the 11 Tues­days of sum­mer.

Who­ever gave ‘em up suc­cess­fully, con­firmed in writ­ing by two adult tes­ti­monies, would get $100.

Smith funded the deal per­son­ally, by can­cel­ing her own ca­ble TV ser­vice. Of 160 stu­dents, 78 at­tempted the chal­lenge and 38 suc­ceeded.

Smith is $3,400 poorer (four stu­dents de­clined the cash) but richer in hope.

“I’ve had kids say that they re­al­ize that they can al­ways rely on their own thoughts,” Smith said. “They can think more. They know what it feels like now to not have to reach for the phone.”

It’s no sur­prise to me that Smith’s story was shared by me­dia around the coun­try. It’s a rare par­ent of a tween or teen who doesn’t worry about kids’ uber-us­age of so­cial me­dia, par­tic­u­larly its in­tox­i­cat­ing but capri­cious ego ful­fill­ment via likes and shares.

It’s also a rare kid who doesn’t know on some level that he or she is too re­liant, bor­der­ing on ad­dicted.

It’s just so hard to shut it off.

And par­ents are hardly the best role mod­els for ab­sti­nence. In fact, Smith heard from many par­ents who said they could not do the chal­lenge, “or didn’t even want to try.”

She said, “They use work as an ex­cuse.”

While Washington Latin serves stu­dents in grades five through 12, Smith cooked up the plan in June specif­i­cally for mid­dle-school­ers. First, she hoped to lessen “the drama that the girls en­gage in over the phones. Now it’s with gaso­line.”

Her other big con­cern is sleep, some­thing these stu­dents are not get­ting.

“The boys and girls text each other at 3 or 4 in the morn­ing,” she said, “and they walk in here and they can’t func­tion.”

Smith ex­plained that each stu­dent needed to as­sume re­spon­si­bil­ity for fig­ur­ing out the chal­lenges posed by not hav­ing ac­cess to screens for 24 hours ev­ery Tues­day from June 13 to Aug. 22.

“For ex­am­ple,” she ex­plained, “if you have Latin sum­mer school and a video is as­signed in class Tues­day for the next day, a stu­dent could wake up early to watch that video. If your friends in­vite you to the movies on Tues­day, you need to take a rain check.”

She did al­low for a few ex­cep­tions, such as re­ceiv­ing calls from par­ents or guardians. But call a friend to chat? “Nope, that knocks you out.”

The idea, she ex­plained, “is for you to dis­ci­pline your­self. It is like fast­ing … to feel and un­der­stand what hap­pens to your life when you go with­out. Live with­out the screens for a day a week and see what hap­pens.”

Guess what? A lot hap­pened.

They baked and read and hung out with friends.

“One fam­ily had a huge wa­ter fight,” Smith said. “Back to the 1950s.”

Smith knew that of­fer­ing cash for good be­hav­ior would raise some eye­brows.

“My fac­ulty’s mouths were open,” she said. “I’m al­ways lec­tur­ing them about not brib­ing the stu­dents. But I don’t know what else would work. I’m not sure any­thing else would work. I had to go ex­treme.”

Even Melinda Gates un­der­stands that. Gates, a for­mer de­vel­oper at Mi­crosoft and co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion, re­cently checked in with her own strug­gles around rais­ing 21st-cen­tury teens.

In a thought­ful essay, she wrote that “phone apps aren’t good or bad in them­selves, but they can ex­ac­er­bate the dif­fi­cul­ties of grow­ing up.”

Par­ents also might want to take a look at “Screenagers,” a 2016 film by Delaney Rus­ton. Rus­ton, a Stan­ford Univer­sity-trained physi­cian and doc­u­men­tary film­maker, grew in­ter­ested in this is­sue when buy­ing a smart­phone for her daugh­ter.

She soon learned that the av­er­age kid spends 6 1/2 hours a day look­ing at screens—boys of­ten many hours more. And while kids boast, cor­rectly, of be­ing skilled at multi-task­ing, they might not un­der­stand that they’re rarely do­ing any of those tasks well.

One teen in “Screenagers” frets about her in­abil­ity to con­cen­trate when her teacher is in­struct­ing. An­other said she turns off her data when she stud­ies, so she “can’t go on the in­ter­net and I can’t get text mes­sages.”

Maybe it’s wis­est to ex­plain to our kids (calmly) that we all ben­e­fit from technology, but a “yes/and” strat­egy is best, for the whole fam­ily.

Yes, technology. And fresh air.

Yes, Snapchat. And face-to-face con­ver­sa­tions.

How­ever you feel about pay­ing kids to do some­thing that’s good for them, I do like Smith’s phi­los­o­phy of baby steps.

Power off one day a week. Or one hour a day. Or dur­ing din­ner.

In “Screenagers,” a group of teens agrees to place their cell­phones on the ta­ble at a restau­rant. Who­ever grabs his or her phone first to check mes­sages has to pick up the tab.

Just think about all the burg­ers and fries a $100 in­fu­sion from Smith could buy them.

Tri­bune News Ser­vice

n It’s a rare par­ent of a teen who doesn’t worry about kids’ uber-us­age of so­cial me­dia.

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