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Jun 19, 2024

How Do We Implement "Phone Away for the Day" Schools?

How Do We Implement "Phone Away for the Day" Schools?

If we don't trust teenagers with phones, should we trust them with phone pouches?

If we don't trust teenagers with phones, should we trust them with phone pouches?

Recently, two schools in Seattle have made headlines for partnering with a “phone-pouch” company in an attempt to decrease the distractions caused by student phone use during the school day.

First, let me acknowledge that I do appreciate any school’s efforts to make positive changes regarding student personal devices. I don’t love the pouch solution, but I can understand that it may be a needed interim step to reestablish norms. That being said, I believe that this solution puts the onus on the wrong group of people to solve the problem:

It’s no secret that over the past decade or so, technology use in schools has dramatically increased. The pandemic and remote learning certainly didn’t help. But it's a two-fold problem, as I’ve written about here, in that it is not just student device use that is problematic (no question- it is) but also the school-issued computers and tablets that present equal distractions (access to YouTube, video games, and Spotify, for example). 

Since I’ve been ensconced in the screens-in-schools activism piece for over six years now, sometimes I forget that not everyone has a clear understanding of how much technology use has crept into the classroom, and how complex and complicated the situation has become.

As a few examples:

  • Many courses have moved entirely digital, not just in high school, but middle school and elementary schools too. In Seattle, the new math program and the much-lamented Science program are 100% digital. There simply are no textbooks. 

  • Students are issued “1:1 devices” from the district (meaning they get a laptop or tablet that is their personal device to use, and often to take home), but there are no longer any computer labs or computers in the school library, two places where professionals could actually instruct students on safe internet research and skill building (like typing).

  • On average, schools are using 125 unique EdTech platforms per school, and 96% of these platforms siphon student data and sell it to AdTech companies, often without parental consent and knowledge;

  • Performing arts teachers or athletic coaches use Discord, Snapchat, or Instagram to coordinate group messaging with students regarding rehearsals or practices;

  • Districts are turning to surveillance technology tools (like GoGuardian) to “keep students on task” on their school computers– now, the teacher of an overfull classroom of forty 7th grade history students can sit at her computer and view all forty screens of her students, to ensure they aren’t surfing the internet instead of doing classwork; 

  • School districts have sued social media companies for harms to student mental health, but are using the same platforms to send messaging to families, or worse, requiring students download these platforms to use for communication tools with the school.

As they say in public policy, this is indeed a “wicked” problem. I can very much understand the benefits of using technology to help a registrar make student class schedules or for tracking attendance, but I balk at handing kindergarten students iPads to teach them to read. And even a data-driven technology solution should not involve siphoning and selling student data without consent (at a bare minimum!). 

But in trying to “solve” things like the “technological divide” or giving predators access to children through school platforms or putting school staff in precarious positions of communicating digitally with students, we’ve generated a whole new set of problems: What happened to computer labs? Why do we assume surveillance tools are the solution to off-task students, vs. finding solutions to decrease class size? Why are we encouraging adults to communicate with students via social media platforms?  Applying technology to those problems isn't the solution.

As the phone-free schools movement has gained traction (yay), so have adjacent solutions, like the “pouches” being purchased by schools and districts to address student device use or the use of EdTech monitoring software. In introducing “pouches” or surveillance technology in the name of “helping” students stay focused, however, we are asking, yet again, the wrong people to solve this problem. We can agree on the problem– excessive screen use, whether personal devices or district–issued devices, present tremendous distraction for learning and teaching– but we’re treating the symptoms, not the cause.

Here’s why: Reliance on pouches and surveillance tech creates three new problems:

  1. Increased costs

  2. Increased temptation

  3. Increased conflict  

First, none of this is free. The pouches retail for $20 each, and even if they offer bulk discounts, where is that funding coming from? In my own district, that’s about to close 20 elementary schools because of a budget crisis, how can we justify this additional cost? And if the PTA is paying for it (as appears to be the case), this raises equity issues. Not all schools have that option. Additionally, EdTech platforms are extremely expensive– not just to operate, but to maintain. During remote learning, districts spent millions of dollars on EdTech, and much of it isn’t used, but schools can’t or won’t just walk away now because of how much was invested then. On April 30, 2024, I attempted to ask my district how much they were spending to implement GoGuardian and that I’d like to see the contract (transparency, right?) and I’ve been told that the earliest I can get a response to my simple question is “June 28, 2024.” 

Secondly, asking students to seal their devices in a pouch that they carry around with them will not decrease their temptation. In fact, when I told my 13-year-old about this new change, she said, “What!? That’s like dangling candy in front of a baby!” She’s 100% right– if it’s there, you can hear it ringing and you want it, but you can’t have it, aren’t you going to be fixated on how to change that? (Also, the pouches are pliable– you can technically cut them open with scissors. While some students may resort to this, I can think of more likely scenarios that students will try to implement to workaround this– like bringing a dummy phone to put in the pouch while keeping your real phone in your pocket. Kids are already doing this at no-phone schools; this wouldn’t change.)

If the goal is to decrease distraction, then phones must not remain on the student’s body during the day. 

With surveillance tech like GoGuardian, we are inviting students to participate in a new hacking challenge (and trust me, they will– just Google “GoGuardian workarounds”). When we resort to surveillance tech, we’re telling students: “We don’t trust you to handle this device properly.” Quite frankly, Duh. You shouldn’t. These are children. Children are not small adults; they do not have fully formed brains; they are curious and impulsive by nature. Asking them to not be distracted by technology is akin to holding an AA meeting in a bar (h/t Matt Miles and Joe Clement, authors of Screen Schooled). Don’t hand them cocaine, tell them not to overuse, and then act surprised when they become addicted. 

Third, I want to ask: for whom are we giving out these pouches? I am sure that teachers are desperate to decrease distractions in the classroom, but I also think parents have some hard work to do. Teachers are already battling with students to put phones away in class (at least those teachers who haven’t given up on that fight already) and now asking teachers to police pouches (or unlock them when needed) does not seem to be a solution that decreases their already way-too-heavy burden. (And hey, if you’re a teacher who feels differently about this, please let me know. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.) The conflict around phones and tech misuse will not go away just because pouches and surveillance tools are implemented, just like parental controls don’t stop kids from accessing and/or seeing content they shouldn’t.

So what is the solution?

I’m glad you asked. ;)

To make long-lasting change, however, and while pressure from different groups is important and needed, the solution has to be a district-wide policy about technology use in two parts:

  1. First, a no-phone policy for grades K-12, with very clear parameters for teacher device use and consistently applied consequences for misuse. 

  2. Secondly, a return to intentional use of technology and computers that prioritizes skills before screens.

This may not surprise you if you’ve been a long-time reader of my essay, but this comes down to tech-intentionality…again. As pressure on schools to cut back on excessive technology grows, this will include not only student devices, but EdTech tools and platforms too. 

The good news is: change is coming whether schools and districts are ready for it or not. And for those schools who are ready to meet this change head on, the solution is in becoming a tech-intentional school. And we’ve got some good news– we are offering a brand-new Tech-Intentional School Certification that will help your school realign your mission, pedagogy, and values with technology in a way that supports teachers, students, and learning. 


If you or your school is interested in learning more about this, please send us an email at info@thescreentimeconsultant.com.

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Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™ are registered trademarks.

The Screentime Consultant Logo Footer image

Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™

are registered trademarks.

The Screentime Consultant Logo Footer image

Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™ are registered trademarks.