I was speaking at a principals’ conference recently. Want to take three guesses at what most of the questions were about? If you said “cellphones, cellphones, and more cellphones” you’re right.
“How do we pull students off devices?”
“How do we remove cellphones as a distraction and regain focus and attention in classrooms?”
“What can we do to cope with growing cellphone addiction and anxiety and other problems rising up?”
Well, first off, it is an addiction. We’ve talked before about how when everyone is addicted to something it looks like nobody is. It’s not the only thing! Caffeine, sugar, you guys know what I’m talking about. But, on phones, my old answer used to be to ban cellphones. Not allowed! Keep them away from classrooms, lunch rooms and hallways. But the tide has shifted. When I asked the room of 300 elementary and high school principals how many didn’t allow cellphones in classrooms … nobody put up their hand.
And then I stared a bit closer at all the conference tables around the room. What was sitting in front of everybody? Cellphones. Of course.
That’s when I realized.
Pandora’s Box is already opened.
You can’t stuff demons back in that easily.
It wasn’t even a few years ago I remember CEOs or conference MCs holding up cardboard boxes and asking everyone to toss their cellphone in before a big meeting began. But now all we do is tell people which hashtag to use.
Why are we so afraid to tell others to give up their phones? Because we don’t want to give them up ourselves.
And it’s not our fault as the devices are designed to be more and more irresistible and addictive and, since we are the most social species on the planet, our phones have become the primary connective tissue to our family, friends, coworkers, tribes, subreddits, fantasy football leagues, celebrity follows … all our social connections.
A 2017 study looked at how people with high and low nomophobic (no-more-phone-phobia) tendencies perceive and value their smartphones. The findings suggest that we see our phones as extensions of ourselves, which is what creates separation anxiety to our phones. That’s right — high cellphone users literally feel anxious when separated from their devices.
Clinical psychologist Brenda K. Wiederhold further elaborates on this subject: “Nomophobia, fear of missing out (FOMO), and fear of being offline (FOBO) — all anxieties born of our new high-tech lifestyles — may be treated similarly to other more traditional phobias. Exposure therapy, in this case turning off technology periodically, can teach individuals to reduce anxiety and become comfortable with periods of disconnectedness.”
But it ain’t that easy!
So what do we do?
Well, I have three suggestions.
After a moment one principal bravely put up her hand and said “You know, we’re trying something at our school. We have 25-minute nutrition breaks twice a day. And in those breaks we say cellphones aren’t allowed. The students sit at tables, face each other, and if we see a cellphone … we take it.”
“How’s it working?” I asked.
“Well, we end up taking a bunch of cellphones every day. It’s really hard for them. But most of them have figured out they can make it 25 minutes and be able to use their phones right afterwards.”
So if you can’t yank the drug, how about a cellphone free zone? It can be schedule-based or maybe location based. Like no cellphones in the library.
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema is an Austin, Texas-based movie theatre chain that is growing in leaps and bounds. While movie theatres nationally experienced a 3.4 per cent drop in box office sales in 2010, Alamo saw a 2.6 per cent rise in sales, and if you include food and drink revenue, that number is up to 4.8 per cent.
What differentiates the Alamo from the rest? Well, it has set in place policies to improve the customer’s overall experience … including one no other movie theatre has: if you use your cellphone a bouncer kicks you out.
Like I said, the chain is growing in leaps and bounds.
Are you complaining about students using cellphones with your phone sitting on your desk?
Last month the New York Times released an article on why Silicon Valley parents are becoming increasingly obsessed with keeping their children away from phones … and why many are now asking their nannies to sign “no cellphone” contracts to help keep technology away from their kids.
One Silicon Valley nanny said: “Most parents come home, and they’re still glued to their phones, and they’re not listening to a word these kids are saying … Now I’m the nanny ripping out the cords from the PlayStations.”
Are children using their phones more because their peers are … or because their parents are?
This all reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon I saw recently. Two women are sitting beside each other on a park bench. Each has a young girl beside them, presumably their daughters. One mom is holding a phone. Her daughter is looking at a phone. The other mom is holding a book. Her daughter is reading a book. And the caption is phone-holding mom asking book-holding mom: “How do you get your kid to read?”
How often do you say “Wow, I drank too much at that wedding. No drinks till next weekend.” Or “I gained five pounds over the holidays. I’ll walk to work this month.” These fasts are little mental systems put in place to prevent slipping again. Systems always beat goals.
So if you’re leading a group of people (in a school, sure, but it also applies elsewhere) you can apply the fasting principle to the group.
How? Start by saying you’re going on a fast.
A Facebook fast, an Instagram fast, a “no social media apps on my cellphone” fast. You pick the fast!
Then ask who else is in, draw up a leader board, and track who lasts the longest. Throw in a prize if it helps. Use a website like stickk.com or futureme.org if it’s helpful.
Declare cell free zones! Model the behaviour! Take a fast!
Yes, our tools may be dull and rusty.
But we can win this war yet.
A slightly modified version of this article originally appeared in the Toronto Star