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This B.C. school has banned cellphones — and seen student health improve

'We saw kids play again': Chatelech Secondary School on the Sunshine Coast is seeing improvements to student health and academics after banning cellphones during instructional time.

It’s no secret that cellphones and social media can be addictive. 

Teigan Turner, a Grade 11 student at Chatelech Secondary School in Sechelt, was averaging eight hours per day on her cellphone. Then at the start of the year, the school banned cell phone use during instructional class time. 

“In school, it’s so distracting,” Turner said of cellphones. “When we were just allowed to take them out, I didn't get any work done.” It was hard not to look when updates and “a lot of drama” on social media kept the phone buzzing with notifications. The fear of missing out (FOMO, as the kids call it) can be overwhelming.

Not all students are fond of the cellphone policy, Turner said, but she loves it. Instead of eight hours, her phone use now averages at around two hours per day. She said she’s finding it easier to learn and focus, during and outside of class. 

An initial shock

The change didn’t happen overnight. 

Tulani Pierce, a counsellor at Chatelech, spearheaded the initiative alongside faculty members. She told Coast Reporter she was worried at the end of last school year because of the amount of bullying and mental health issues she was seeing her pupils struggle with. 

“When we went into the pandemic, technology was kind of pushed so we could get through it. But the pendulum swung so far to one side that we need for it to come back to the centre,” Pierce said. 

She researched the adverse effects of cellphone use and found Shimi K. Kang’s work. Kang is a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, a clinical associate professor at the University of British Columbia and the former medical director for Child and Youth Mental Health for Vancouver, who relates cellphone use to addiction and continued distraction. 

Kang’s work points to the amount of time teenagers are engaging with smartphones, checking them every six minutes. 

“When I see something that's harming our students, it's my job to take care of them and to make sure they're OK,” Pierce said. After hearing the alternative school was also trying a no-cellphone policy, Pierce connected with their staff. 

Pierce also quotes neuroscientist Ramsy Brown, who told Time Magazine, “Your kid is not weak-willed because he can’t get off his phone... Your kid’s brain is being engineered to get him to stay on his phone.”

To ease the transition, students and families were given a six-week notice.

Implementation 'smoother than expected'

Science teacher Alison Liddicoat said there was an initial shock among the students, but the implementation went smoother than expected once clear guidelines were set. 

A student found using their phone has to take it to the office, where it will be confiscated for the rest of the school day. Students are also not allowed to bring their cellphones to the washroom. 

“All students in Grades 8-10 will not be able to use their phone during instructional time including FLEX,” the policy states. “Students are asked to keep cellphone/personal devices in their locker or turn them off and place in their bag before entering a classroom. Students in Grades 8-10 will be able to use their phone before and after school as well as lunch. Lunch is from 12:00 -12:45.  

“All Grade 11-12 students will not be able to use their phones during instructional time. Students will be able to use them during FLEX and study blocks as we feel that students at this stage of their educational journey need to learn to regulate their use independently.”

In case of an emergency, parents can contact the school’s front office to share a message with their child. 

Vice principal Paula Stroshein-Martinez and Pierce are clear: a cellphone is not needed for class, and students who misplace their schedule can have a new one printed at the front office rather than relying on the school’s app. 

Principal Mark Sauer said the school is doing its best to supply teachers with the resources they need. “The first reaction for us is to grab a phone, and we want to get away from that,” he said. “We want to get people using their brains.”

“Cellphone use was so prevalent in students. I felt like, as a teacher in the classroom, it was me against 30 students that are all on their cellphones, Liddicoat said. “It was pretty overwhelming the challenge that we were facing prior to this.

“It was becoming an impossible task.”

Offline improvements

When the pandemic enforced social distancing measures, school and peer interactions became a mostly online affair for students. Coming back offline has been a challenge. 

“The pandemic really shifted us in a digital direction, because that was the only way they could communicate,” Liddicoat said. “When we came out of that online, student communication stayed there.” 

Liddicoat also welcomes the change as a parent to two Chatelech students. She didn’t know how to help her kids move back into in-person interactions once pandemic-related restrictions eased up. 

“As we're implementing this policy, I've noticed, it's a lot easier for them to start interacting face-to-face,” Liddicoat said. “So that's been a really nice shift again, back to being human.”

Since the no cellphone policy came into effect in January, she’s noticed students are more engaged in class and can remember the material better. They’re less frustrated with themselves and there are fewer interruptions. Academic performance has improved, too. Instead of students glued to their phones during flex time, Liddicoat has a group of students who play chess. Students who want to listen to music while they work have gotten creative with alternative devices, such as boomboxes (used with headphones) and Walkman CD players. (Yes, the Walkman is making a local comeback.) 

“Play came back full force,” vice principal Stroshein-Martinez said. “We saw kids play again.” No small feat for those working with teenagers.

The new cellphone policy is not meant as a punishment, Pierce stresses. She points out the policy also helps students who do not have a cellphone fit in and engage with their peers. 

It’s also been an opportunity for students to identify and change unhealthy habits. Liddicoat said many of them just needed the excuse to disconnect from social media and the expectation to always be online.

“This generation doesn't ever get an opportunity to be off. So school is now that safe, relaxing place for that,” Liddicoat said.

To other schools considering cellphone policies, Liddecoat said, “It’s definitely possible, and you get a different version of your students.”

Pierce and Stroshein-Martinez have presented their information to Elphinstone and Pender Harbour Secondary to share the policy with other educators. Chatelech staff will be collecting data through the rest of the year to gauge how the policy is impacting student learning.