Reducing Smartphone Use: Authenticity vs. Authority

My school asked our grade-level team to talk to our students about smartphone usage. No phones in the classroom has been a rule at the school for a long time. But recently, our administration has become concerned about student phone use outside of the classroom – in between classes, during lunch, and even while students are going to the toilet. We were asked to address this issue.

Rather than a straight-up, aggressive clampdown on phone usage, our team decided to approach this issue in a more nuanced, longer-term manner. We began by asking ourselves some questions. What is the deal with cellphones at school? Why are we concerned about student screen time? Afterall, over the last few years, we’ve encouraged students to bring a device to school. Online learning took the concept to the next level. Our classes (and assessments) are based in Google Classroom. Lessons are presented through Google Slides. We share content through Google Drive. Group projects make use of shared Google Docs. Why is the laptop screen okay, but the phone screen verboten

The message we decided to present to our students was not one of prohibition, but instead of a need for balance. My school subscribed to a pretty good online digital citizenship program filled with videos, memes, and cool graphics. But, I wanted to start our conversation about balance with something a little more familiar and personal. So, I sat down and told my students the story of my two-stage journey through parenthood: the first in the late 90s and early 00s, and (after a divorce) my most recent experience beginning in 2013. I talked about being a parent in the time before smartphones and how I spent so much quality time with my first two kids. Then, I compared that with today and how my attention has been distracted by the neverending and ever present scroll of news and entertainment available on my phone. Then, I showed my students a quick video I made of my seven-year-old daughter talking about the amount of time I spend on the phone and how she feels about it. 

Then, I showed my students the screen usage data my phone had recorded. This class took place at 8:00am and my phone revealed that I had already been onscreen that day for an hour and a half already. I admitted to them that I actually wake up 30-minutes early every morning to carve out time for scrolling through Reddit.com and playing Pokemon Go.

Beginning our conversation about screen time with honest personal experiences, rather than a slickly produced canned product, ensured that our journey together would be an authentic one. FYI, the revelation that I had been divorced was particularly fascinating to my students!

My sharing showed students that we were in this together. I wasn’t just up at the front of the room delivering an ultimatum or making threats. I was acknowledging that I had a problem, like we all have developed since the COVID-19 lockdowns, and I was inviting all of us to work together to find a better balance.

Hopefully this honest beginning will lead to greater openness and engagement as we move through this school year together. 

Ed X!

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