“When we talk about addiction, phones are not what first come to mind,” says Dan Wolman, an Oak Park and River Forest High School history teacher. “We often think of more socially unacceptable behaviors like drugs, alcohol or gambling. We may even give technology a pass. Why? Who knows?” 

Wolman sits on the high school’s Cell Phone Committee — an entity created last year to come up with some common sense regulations on cell phone usage at the high school. The high school’s newspaper, Trapeze, reported last month that at OPRF, “there is a lenient and rarely enforced cell phone policy,” with expectations about phone usage varying from classroom to classroom. 

“Some teachers quickly send student’s phones straight to the dean, while others merely give a gentle reminder,” the Trapeze reported. 

Cell Phone Committee members like Wolman have been working to change that culture, but the first step toward cultural change is acknowledging reality. And the reality, Wolman said during a presentation he gave during a Parent University session in November, is that many OPRF students are suffering from addiction and their drug of choice is the cell phone. 

Wolman cited a range of researchers like Trevor Haynes, a researcher in the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. 

“Platforms like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram leverage the same neural circuitry used by slot machines and cocaine to keep us using their products as much as possible,” Haynes writes. 

According to a 2018 study by Pew Research, around 95 percent of teenagers report having a smartphone or access to a smartphone — a percentage that is roughly the same at OPRF, Haynes said, referencing a survey the committee conducted recently that generated roughly 1,100 student responses. 

 Wolman cited other studies showing that 13- to 18-year-olds in America spend an average of more than seven hours a day on screens, which doesn’t include time spent doing homework. 

“Informally, I like to ask my students to tell me what kind of screen time they’re looking at each day and the numbers are astronomical,” he said. “Ten, 12, 13, 15 hours.” 

But all hope is not lost, said Wolman and his colleague, Meghan Cahill, an OPRF counselor who also sits on the Cell Phone Committee. 

Here are some tips that the educators provided for parents to help wean their children off of smartphones: 

Introduce them to JOMO

Wolman said he and his colleagues asked 3,300 students at OPRF what it would take to get them to go “phone-free for three straight weeks of school.” 

“We thought maybe we’d get zero hits from 3,300 students, but they do respond to things,” he said. The most popular incentives were: Points to use at local restaurants/retailers (306 responses), free outside lunch (287), job references from OPRF faculty (265), free movie tickets (258) and free prom/homecoming tickets (248). 

Get a kSafe (or something similar)

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. 

Although there are a variety of brands that play on the same theme, one of the most popular is the kSafe. This brand has a timer on the lids, which come in a bright assortment of colors.  

Utilize parental control apps 

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.”

Some of the more popular parental control apps include FamilyTime, Qustodio and Web Watcher (all three run on both Android and Apple smartphones).

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