Powering Down Cellphone Use in Middle Schools

Jan. 11, 2023 – As vice principal of Pennsville Middle School in New Jersey, Adam J. Slusher knows he’s not always going to be Mr. Popularity. 

Part of a vice principal’s job includes scheduling, enforcing policy, and discipline, so Slusher – who holds a doctorate in education from Wilmington University in Delaware – sometimes has to send emails or make phone calls that address unpleasant topics or unpopular new policies.

Or punishments.

But there was a much different reaction this past July, after Slusher sent a message to the homes of Pennsville’s 450 students spanning grades 6 to 8. The email blast announced a new cellphone policy for the school. Starting in September, as Slusher explained in the message – which also went out to the school’s 60 faculty and staff members – the use of cellphones by Pennsville students would be prohibited during school hours for any reason.

Phones, he emphasized, “are to be turned OFF” and stowed away in backpacks or handbags, not carried or tucked into back pockets.

The announcement of the new Away for the Day policy, which was decided upon by Slusher and Pennsville Principal Carolyn Carels, provoked a response different from those to his announcements on, say, test dates, emergency procedures, or new detention policies. 

It was one of the most popular emails Ive ever sent,” chuckled Slusher, who has been an educator for 17 years. “We’ve gotten so many thanks from teachers for this.”

Ditto with the staff, who in conversations with Slusher and Carels had reported on the rampant use of phones in the cafeteria and hallways – confirming what both of them had seen. 

“They were telling us, ‘You’ve got to do something about the phones’” Slusher recalls. “They were delighted that a clear policy was now going to be in place.”

The overwhelming majority of Pennsville parents have also supported the new policy, especially, when presented with some of the sobering evidence about the extent of phone use among this population. One study Slusher cited in his email showed that the average middle school child is spending between 6 and 9 hours a day on screens. 

“That’s like a full-time job,” he says. 

The heavy cellphone use by kids – in school, out of school, anywhere and everywhere – was part of what prompted internal medicine doctor and filmmaker Delaney Ruston, MD, to create the “Away for the Day” initiative, which Pennsville has adopted.

She and collaborator Lisa Tabb were driven to do “Away for the Day” while working on Screenagers, their award-winning 2016 film examining the impact of social media, videos, and screen time on youngsters and their families that also offered tips for better navigating the digital world.

“Over 3 years of making the film, I was visiting schools all over the country,” Ruston says. “By the end, I was seeing devices all over the place, even in elementary schools. When I’d ask a student in the hall, ‘What’s the policy?’ they would shrug and say ‘I don’t know.’ When I got the same reaction from teachers – who in many cases were left to decide on their own, so that they had to be the bad guys – I realized there was a problem here.”

The result was what Ruston and Tabb describe on their website as a “movement,” designed to provide tools to parents, teachers, and administrators to help them make policies that put phones away during the school day. 

The Age of Social Centrality 

As even a casual glance in the homeroom of every high school or college lecture hall will confirm, phone use is high in teenagers and young adults. But Ruston and Tabb decided to focus on middle schools. 

“That’s the age where we know schools are facing the most challenges,” Ruston says. “This is also the age when social centrality becomes a major focus for youth. Thus, the pull to be on social media games, where their peers are, is incredibly enticing.” 

Indeed: A recent study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that middle schoolers who compulsively check social networks on their phones appear to have changes in areas of the brain linked to reward and punishment.

It was in middle schools, she concluded, “where effective policies on cellphones are most needed.”        

As part of their research into the issue, she and Tabb did a survey using email contacts collected by Rustons company, MyDoc Productions, during the making of the film, along with subscribers to her blog. A total of 1,200 parents – each of whom had at least one child in middle school at the time – were surveyed. The researchers found an interesting disconnect: 82% of the parents surveyed did not want their kids using phones in school. Yet 55% of middle schools allowed students to carry phones during the school day.

That survey was done in 2017. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of cellphones by kids, both in school and at home, has risen dramatically. A literature review of 46 studies, published in JAMA Pediatrics in November, found that average screen time among children and adolescents has increased by 52% – or 84 minutes a day – during the pandemic.

That trend  has given many schools, including Pennsville, the drive to adopt an Away for the Day-type policy. As part of the program, Ruston’s website provides ammunition against the kinds of pushback they might expect to get. One of the most common is the idea that banning cellphone use among middle school children is a misguided, anti-technology measure.

“We’re not at all anti-tech,” Ruston asserts. Away for the Day, she explains, advocates the use of learning technologies in school that are monitored and supervised by teachers. 

“The majority of students have access to learning devices in the school,” she says. “These have different kinds of blockers, making it harder for their kid to respond to their friend on TikTok when they’re supposed to be using technology for learning.”

Ruston estimates that about 10,000 middle schools are now using various pieces of the Away for the Day campaign, which includes videos, posters, fact sheets, and other materials. Other schools have adopted similar measures in the same spirit.      

Predictable and Calm? Not So Much

When Katherine Holden was named principal of Oregon’s Talent Middle School last year, one of the first things she wanted to do was create some structure for the routines of students (and parents) who were frazzled after 2 years of remote learning, staggered schedules, and mask mandates.

“Predictable and calm,” she says, with a laugh. “I use those words every day.”

Achieving both is hard enough in a middle school without a pandemic – not to mention an epidemic of cellphone use. (Talent also endured a massive fire in 2020 that left many families homeless.) 

For this school year, Holden is using a new and clearly articulated policy: “Devices are put away from the first bell to the last bell,” she says. “We want them to have a focus on other things. We want them to be socializing, interacting with their peers face-to-face, thinking about getting to class. We want them making eye contact, asking questions. Learning how to make a friend face-to-face. Those are important developmental social skills they should be practicing.”

Instead of scrolling through photos on Instagram, watching trending videos on TikTok, or texting their friends.

Like Slusher, she announced the new cellphone policy last summer, in a letter sent home to parents along with the list of school supplies their children would need. 

“Students are welcome to use their cell phones and personal devices before entering the building prior to 8:30 a.m. and after exiting the school building at 3:10 p.m.,” she wrote. “However, during the school day students’cell phones and personal devices need to be off and out of sight.” “I think parents generally understand the need for this,” Holden says. “Theyve watched their children getting distracted at home by these devices, so they have a sense of how a cellphone adds a layer of challenge to learning. And parents are aware of the unkind behavior that often happens online.”

As for the kids themselves? Safe to say the excitement that Slusher’s email got from Pennsville faculty, staff, and parents didn’t extend to students. 

“They dont like it all, to be honest,” he says. “But they understand its for their benefit. When we sold it to them at our beginning-of-the-year meeting, we presented our rationale. From the kids I speak to, I think the majority understand why we’re doing it.”

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