Here’s a riddle. On a scale between candy and crack cocaine, I’m closer to crack cocaine. Who am I? 

Your smartphone, says reams of academic research, and tech executives like Chris Anderson — the former editor of Wired magazine and a technology executive whose statement to the New York Times in 2018 was the source of that riddle. 

At Oak Park and River Forest High School, cell phones are as ubiquitous as textbooks, if not more so, which presents an array of challenges that District 200 is attempting to resolve. 

In October, the OPRF Cell Phone Committee published a parent survey created to gauge “how parents view the presence and use of phones among students in certain spaces and during certain times of the school day,” according to a letter to parents the district released on Dec. 19. 

Among 1,200 responses — “enough to provide us with a mostly representative sample of the community” — roughly 85 percent of parents said they strongly agreed that students shouldn’t be allowed access to their phones while in class. On a scale of 1 to 10, where at least a 7 represented strong agreement, 63 percent of parents selected a 10. 

Roughly 45 percent of parents surveyed strongly agreed that students “should not be allowed to access their phones in other academic spaces (e.g., tutoring center, library, study hall), while approximately 37 [percent] strongly disagree.”

Among those who want cell phones out of classrooms at OPRF, “the most common reasons highlighted adverse academic effects, social and emotional growth, and mental health concerns stemming from screen (and primarily phone) addiction,” according to the district statement. 

Those parents who disagreed with phone-free classrooms cited the need to have access to their children while they’re in school, “allowing young adults to make their own choices, and an expectation or hope that the high school would teach responsible digital habits and uses rather than try to remove the phones from certain spaces.” 

But it can be hard to adequately manage a technology that is such a pervasive and consuming presence in young people’s lives. For one, pedagogy is often no match for the addicting effects smartphone technology has on the brain. 

“We thought we could control it,” Anderson, referencing smartphone technology, told the New York Times. “And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand.” 

And it can’t be left to teenagers to figure out, either, some argue. 

“One thing we know about teenagers is they have a wildly inflated sense of their ability to multitask,” said Dan Wolman, an OPRF history teacher who sat on the high school’s Cell Phone Committee during a Parent University session in November. Wolman referenced Anderson’s observation and various studies pointing to the harms of smartphones during his presentation. 

“Part of this is they don’t know anything else,” Wolman said. “They don’t have this frame of reference, this sort of pre-phone life and post-phone life in the way we do. So, it’s not multi-tasking it’s just tasking, and why would the phone get in the way?” 

Meghan Cahill, an OPRF counselor, told parents at the November Parent University session that she’s gotten positive feedback from some OPRF students, including her own children, who have gone for periods of time without their smartphones. They reported stronger bonds with friends, better focus and more productivity. 

Cahill said that she utilizes a timed lock box that she puts her family’s smartphones in when they need to deprogram from the devices. Once the container is locked (for however many seconds, minutes, hours or days you set it to lock), it can’t be opened until the timer reaches zero. And there’s no code to open them prematurely. 

Cahill said that she also utilizes a third-party app that allows her to limit her children’s screen time by logging them out of certain apps or shutting the phone down altogether. For instance, “Snapchat can be off while they’re at school.” 

“It took a solid two weeks to deal with either the box or the screen time limits set on their phones,” she said. “Like anything else, it’s habit-forming, but you can schedule everything.”

The Cell Phone Committee is currently working to incorporate feedback from parents, students and faculty into the development of two smartphone pilot programs that are set to launch this month and to develop “common sense expectations and protocol around phones for the start of the 2020 school year,” the district said.


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