Smart phones have become a massive distraction in the classroom, so the Mount Horeb Area School District will no longer allow them to be used during instructional time in grades six through 12. Public domain photo.
Social media is causing a mental health crisis and phones are preventing students from learning in the classroom; the local school district is doing something about it
“Who knew all of human knowledge could make people dumber? In 50 years, we’ll look at the internet the same way we look at smoking right now. … In 50 years we’ll have special, designated areas outside of buildings where you can use the internet. Internet-designated zones. Don’t bring the internet indoors; secondhand stupidity is the real killer.” -Ronny Chieng
According to a study published by the National Institutes of Health, evidence from a variety of cross-sectional, longitudinal and empirical studies “implicate smartphone and social media use in the increase in mental distress, self-injurious behavior and suicidality among youth.” The more time young people spend perusing social media on their phones, the worse the effects are. The impact appears to be greatest among girls, the same paper shows.
The effects of social media addiction range from loss of learning to loss of self. Many people worry it can even lead to the loss of life itself.
Just one of a litany of disturbing findings in the study was that “social media can negatively affect adolescents’ self-view and interpersonal relationships through social comparison and negative interactions, including cyberbullying; moreover, social media content often involves normalization and even promotion of self-harm and suicidality among youth.”
Last but not least, “high proportions of youth engage in heavy smartphone use and media multitasking, with resultant chronic sleep deprivation, and negative effects on cognitive control, academic performance and socioemotional functioning.”
Taking into consideration this vast galaxy of red flags, along with the results of recent surveys in which parents and students alike asked the district to focus on mental health, the Mount Horeb Area School District is taking decisive action. In what will, for some, feel like a sweeping change, phones and other personal electronic devices will no longer be allowed during instructional time for pupils in grades six through 12. It’s a bold move that educators believe will immediately improve the quality of education students receive, and could, in theory, save lives in the long run.
School board president Jessica Arrigoni said the change is part of a multi-pronged effort to make sure students are “happy and engaged” when they are learning.
“It’s not only academic,” she explained. “It’s for the students’ social and mental health.”
“Our own, student-driven data shows anxiety and depression are through the roof, and our strategic plan survey told us people want us to do more to address mental health,” she continued. “This is going to be very good for our students.”
“We’re hoping to create a culture around how we do things, and it’s going to be consistent [in both the middle school and the high school],” she said.
Arrigoni said districts that have adopted similar policies have seen almost immediate increases in test scores.
She says she also suspects many students will actually feel “a sense of relief” when the constant trauma of social media is removed from the equation.
But Arrigoni was quick to point out that the move is not anti-technology or intended to stifle innovation and digital learning in local schools.
“Kids will still be doing all sorts of cool things with technology in the classroom, but it’s going to be with purpose rather than an addiction,” she said. She said students will still have access to their phones during lunch and outside of instructional time.
In a statement sent out to the district, superintendent Dr. Steve Salerno called constant phone use in the classroom “an addiction” that educators have an obligation to help break in the best interest of the community’s youth.
“There is significant empirical evidence to support learning loss and anxiety inducing behaviors when these devices are so readily available,” wrote Salerno. “Not to mention, imagine trying to teach 25-plus students while competing for their attention with an electronic device.”
Multiple district officials admitted implementation may anger some students or parents. They said it’s a risk worth taking.
“Yes, many of our students are unhappy about this new practice,” wrote Salerno. “We get it. Frankly, repeatedly checking our devices is a form of addiction. It is time that we responsibly wean them off.”
A teacher in the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District, where phones are allowed - and pervasive - in the classroom, spoke on the condition of anonymity about the impact they have on education.
“If you are an adult, it basically in no way resembles what school was like for you,” he said. “It’s an addictive psychology, the kids obviously don’t have the ability to self-regulate, and they are on their phones every moment of the day. It makes it impossible for them to engage in any meaningful discourse. They don’t even interact with each other.”
The teacher said students who struggle the most academically are “almost all” addicted to their phones, perusing everything from Snapchat to pornography throughout the school day. They said social media use makes it impossible for teachers to reach many of the students who need help the most. “However bad you imagine it is, it is worse than that,” the teacher stated.
While many teachers greeted the news of Mount Horeb’s new policy with applause, district leaders here said they are prepared for some backlash from students and parents who feel unlimited social media access is a fundamental right.
But Mount Horeb Middle School principal Paul Christiansen said educators are doing “what’s best for kids” rather than merely what is popular in the short-term.
“I think the biggest thing is just the constant disruption,” he said, “which leads to less engagement.”
Christiansen said the COVID pandemic and all that came with it highlighted problems that already existed.
“Let’s be honest,” he said. “Over the last few years, kids have not had a lot of opportunities for engagement, for problem solving.” He went on to say that with their phones away, pupils will once again have the opportunity to take part in the “productive struggle” at the root of true learning.
For thousands of years, people have learned through variations of the Socratic method; the ongoing process of dialogue between students and teachers. With students’ phones temporarily off, local educators hope students and teachers in Mount Horeb will once again be able to engage in the messy, beautiful process of learning, together.
Christiansen said students themselves know how badly digital distractions are hindering their growth and development, but as with any addiction, the cycle can be difficult to break, especially if everyone else is doing it. That’s why leadership at the district office, the high school and the middle school all agreed to make the change universal in grades six through 12.
“Will it be easy? Not necessarily. When September comes, this will be a new expectation,” he said.
“It will be a change, but it won’t be a surprise,” he added.
Supporters of the change were quick to quash any comparisons to the radical followers of the mythical Ned Ludd, who smashed textile machines and gifted society with the enduring term for those who reject technology: “luddite.”
“The kids all still have Chromebooks, and they all have access to the internet,” Christiansen said. “A component of this is just teaching appropriate use.” He said phones can still be used as tools in the curriculum, in specified areas where they are a natural part of the learning process.
But while academics are important, district leaders returned again and again to the core fact that unfettered access to social media during instructional time needs to come to an end, and not merely to boost test scores.
“The research talks about increasing anxiety and depression, and the loss of self that comes with that,” Christiansen said.
“We owe it to them to do what’s in their best interest,” he continued.
So, will this initiative help teachers teach? Will it help students learn? District leaders say they will have data points to help answer those questions soon enough.
Whether it will make people happier, healthier, and more engaged with the world around them – and whether it will allow them to develop unique selves that feel like they belong – will be harder to quantify, but not impossible.
“We will be able to look and see,” Christiansen said.
Did you know? Two separate studies out of Yale University showed that reliance on the internet could cause people to “lose sight of where their own minds end and the mind of the internet begins.” In doing so, people became strongly – and wrongly – convinced that they were experts on topics about which they had almost no depth of understanding at all, simply because they had Googled them. In the long run, they were more likely to remember Googling the information than what the information actually was.
Here’s the message penned by district leaders about the change:
In an effort to increase student engagement and address the growing student mental-health needs the use of personal communication devices and headphones will no longer be allowed during instructional times at the middle and high school.
We understand this will be a change for our students. However, based on research and information solicited from area districts this change is in the best interest of our students.
This change in procedure will begin at the onset of the 2023-2024 school year.
Why are we making this change?
RATIONALE: With the unending advancement of digital technology, there is an opportunity to advance student learning through its use. On the other hand, digital technology may also be used in ways that detract from student learning, academic integrity, and positive student interaction.
In an effort to increase student engagement and address the growing student mental-health needs the use of personal communication devices and headphones will not be allowed during instructional times.
Based on nationwide research around the impact of cell phones and other personal communication devices, it is imperative to refocus our efforts around engagement by tightening our rules and expectations around these devices.
The Academic Impact Research shows a 6.4% increase in academic achievement when cell phones are limited or banned in the classroom. 8th graders who are heavy users of social media have a 27% higher risk of depression than kids who exceed the average time playing sports or hanging out with friends. These are just a few of the statistics that provide a clear case to rethink and change our habits and practices around cell phones.
Expectations - Off and Away
We will be working within our school teams to make certain all expectations are clearly communicated to our students. We will also make a conscious effort to remind students of the off and away expectation on a regular basis. Thank you in advance for helping reiterate these expectations at home.
Cell phones and other personal communication devices will be off and away during instructional time (“bell to bell” for all class periods, including Viking Hour/STAT/advisory). This includes when students are moving about the building during instructional time.
Students may only use personal communication devices and headphones, including cell phones, for purposes pre-authorized by the teacher for a specific learning activity.
Headphones (e.g. AirPods, Beats, etc.) will be off and away during instructional time.
Cell phones, personal communication devices, and earbuds/headphones are allowable during Study Hall (High School only) and Lunch only.
Teachers will remind students that personal communication devices must be OFF and AWAY on a regular basis.
Cell phones and other personal communication devices may never be used in a locker room, restroom, or other places where privacy is expected.
Students may not capture photographs or video footage of any student or staff without their permission.
NOTE: These expectations may not apply in emergency situations.
Enforcement: If a student is found using a cell phone and other personal communication devices without authorization, the student must surrender the device to staff without objection or hesitation. Students will then be given a referral in Infinite Campus. The steps taken after this referral will be determined by the number of occurrences there have been for that student. Steps could include the removal of privileges, detentions, in-school suspensions, and/or individual cell phone improvement plans. Our goal is to avoid this.
Additional Items to Note
At no time should a staff member go through or look in a student’s cell phone.
The District shall not be responsible for the safety or security of personal electronic equipment that students choose to bring to school. Students who bring any personal electronic device(s) to school do so at their own risk to possible theft, damage, misappropriation of data/equipment, or other loss.
Personal Device infractions may result in an Activities Code violation that could jeopardize participation in an activity or athletic competition.
High School Administrators:
High School Principal
HS Assistant Principal
Kolleen Neshiem, HS AP and Activities Coordinator
Middle School Administrators:
Middle School Principal
MS Assistant Principal