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Kindling a Fire: Phone-Free and Loving It (Mostly)

Kindling a Fire: Phone-Free and Loving It (Mostly)

Last year I wrote extensively about three troubling influences on education: the rapid advancement of modern technology, the decline of childhood independence, and the teen mental health crisis. As I wrote this past fall, these issues are complex, constantly changing, and resistant to simple solutions; consequently, we are taking an appropriately nuanced and multi-faceted approach to our response at Country Day.

That said, we have made one simple change that has already shown promising results: we have removed access to smartphones for all students during the school day. Notably, we do not ask students to put their phones away on their own. Instead, each morning our students turn their phones over to their advisors where they are kept until the final bell. No student has a phone (or its unavoidable temptations) for the duration of the school day. 

We took this step because, as I shared with our community in August, “Country Day is founded on a culture of deep, meaningful relationships [where] a sense of community connectedness pervades our every action.” While technology remains a critical component of our curriculum, research shows that smartphones can have three troubling effects:

  • They can contribute to increased rates of depression and anxiety in teens;
  • they can cause distraction and reduce cognitive performance on academic tasks; and
  • they can displace in-person social interactions – a critical element of teen mental health.

In short, as I told our community this past fall, “Phones can impede learning, hinder social development, and lessen belonging.”

So how has life on campus been without phones? To be honest, it has been a bigger success than I imagined. The students are more engaged in their academic work and they seem more connected to each other. Instead of being “forever elsewhere” on their phones, they are investing in real-world relationships with faculty, staff, and each other.

Rather than huddling around their individual screens during free time, students have been playing raucous games of eight-person around-the-world ping pong; they’ve been playing cards in the senior pit; and they’ve been playing football and cornhole in the amphitheater. In fact, there was so much foot traffic outdoors this fall that we had to replace a patch of grass that had been trampled by repeated games of Spikeball. Now that’s a problem I’d be glad to have again this spring!

Not surprisingly, teachers have embraced our phone-free school culture. The new policy means that teachers do not have to serve as “phone police” all day, instead freeing them to connect even more intentionally with students and their learning. And students appear more engaged and less distracted than ever before.

To my delight, the students have largely accepted the policy, too. For many students, after a few days of understandable trepidation, they realized that giving up their phones during the school day is not that big of a deal (especially when everyone has to do it at the same time). Being phone-free is simply another way to be in the world – one with which they may not have had much prior experience. Now that students have had the opportunity to live without a phone for a period of time, they seem more able to make purposeful choices when their phones are available.

I do not want to suggest that there was universal admiration for the new policy. While there was far less opposition than expected, it is true that some students despise the new rule. And a few parents pushed back with concerns that they would be unable to reach their children during the school day. But two interesting responses emerged from these perspectives. First, students remain very reachable via their tablet computers or even the old-fashioned office telephones. When genuine emergencies arise, students are still safe, supported, and available.

But more importantly, students have an increased autonomy, which they need to develop into flourishing adults. Too often, phones serve as a sort of leash for students, used to monitor and supervise children throughout the day. But school presents an eight-hour period of vital time for kids to practice self-sufficiency and self-regulation.

For that reason, we paired the new phone policy with increased independence for our Upper School students. Students now have more freedom to move around campus, seniors receive their off-campus privileges earlier, and juniors are now eligible for off-campus privileges, too. To prepare our students for the world, they need to be surrounded by a culture of connection and autonomy.

Ultimately, I do not believe that technology is inherently bad. In fact, it can be a powerful force for good – including for many teens and most schools – when used purposefully. But technology is like food: it must be used in a way that is nourishing rather than harmful. We must all work together to find balance, enforce limits, and maximize the benefits of technology without its more destructive effects. I believe our new smartphone policy is an important step toward that objective.

"Kindling a Fire" is a column submitted regularly to Indian Hill Living by Head of School Rob Zimmerman '98. This ran in the March 2024 edition of the publication.