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Bellevue school locks away students’ phones

(Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

The Junior High at Bellevue Christian does the unthinkable five days a week from 8:20 a.m. to 2:50 p.m. — keep phones out of the hands of teens.

Principal Blake DeYoung says phones for kids are problematic.

“I think every parent, I think every school, I even think that every young person feels like there’s something that’s just off in the use of technology in the amount of time and attention we are dedicating to these things and as unhealthy as many of the activities are we all have a sense of this and yet as an individual: as an individual user, as an individual family, as an individual school there’s great risk in being the one that steps out and kind of removes oneself from that equation,” DeYoung said.

He says as an educator, booting phones from classrooms was the ultimate elephant in the room.

“I’ve used the word sinister before,” DeYoung said. “It felt like there was less and less concern over the social media apps in particular were having on kids and we were starting to see more and more negative behaviors — sort of bullying and harassment through social media. We were starting to see much more distraction in the classroom, we were starting to see more and more compromises to the academic integrity side of things when kids have a four inch supercomputer that fits into their pocket.”

But what to do about it?

“I didn’t want us to be some kind of really crackdown, Draconian environment trying to maintain something we couldn’t really control,” DeYoung said. “You’re not going to follow a kid into the bathroom to see whether or not they’re using their cell phone. You can’t keep them off campus because they’re really too necessary to modern day life.”

So, they did their homework and invited social scientist Dr. Jean Twenge to the school for a talk.

“Dr. Twenge had written a cover story in the Atlantic in September of 2017 called, ‘Have Smartphones destroyed a generation?’ and that was a companion piece to a full length book she wrote called, ‘i-Gen,’ that was a presentation of the really compelling mental health data on young people and the possible link that might have to smartphones and it paints a really compelling picture,” DeYoung said. “It is hard to look at the data and not see a link.”

The i-Gen is the first generation to spend their entire adolescence with smartphones, Twenge explains. Twenge compared data from other generations at the same age and started noticing some disturbing trends, which she talked about in a Ted Talk:

These teens are less likely to go out without their parents, less likely to get together with friends, more said they felt left out and lonely. They felt they couldn’t do anything right. Felt useless and they didn’t enjoy life.

Most concerning of all is the suicide rate for 12-14 year old’s has doubled since 2007. I think this means we have to ask ourselves the question, “Why?” What happened between 2010 and 2015 that might have caused these trends?

Dr. Twenge says the most glaring common denominator is access to smartphones.

Principal DeYoung said after Dr. Twenge’s lecture, the school was convinced it had to do something.

“But as an educator, I look at that data and I read her observation and I just felt like it so clearly established the link we’d been looking for,” DeYoung said.

They reached out to a company that sold something called the Yondr Pouch. It’s a device designed to lock up phones at concerts to enhance the experience and also to protect proprietary information at comedy shows.

“Yondr had started out as a way to protect those shows from the intrusive nature of smartphones and it didn’t take too long before somebody went, ‘Ya know, that might be a really simple and elegant solution for school’s, as well.’ And that was certainly our response,” DeYoung said.

Lock it in a Yonder Pouch

In spring of 2018, the Junior High at Bellevue Christian implemented a pilot program with the Yondr Pouches at school. It was such a success that it fully implemented the program this past fall.

Kids get a Yondr Pouch at the beginning of the year and they keep it in their possession.

“First thing they do in class as a group is pull the pouches out, lock the pouch and put the pouch back in their bag,” DeYoung said. “And then it remains there until the end of the day. So Yondr Pouches are unlocked by these unlocking stations: you tap your Yondr Pouch on the magnetic unlocking device and it pops open and you take your phone out and off you go.”

DeYoung said parents were thrilled.

“For a kid, it’s super high-risk because it feels like the whole social world is just going to leave them behind. And, frankly, there’s probably some truth in that,” DeYoung said. “For a parent, it’s a huge burden to bare because all a parent is going to hear from their child is, ‘Why are you doing this to me? You’re the only one doing this to me.’ It puts a lot of strain on that parent/child relationship.”

Feedback from students was positive, too.

“I may not have wanted this all the time, but I recognize how positive it has been for me as an individual student and how positive it’s been for our school culture.”

Principal DeYoung said he’s happy for his school, but he also wants to spread the word that phones and their apps are designed to maximize the number of times the device gets picked up or the apps get opened.

“Programmers are getting bonuses or they’re getting venture capitalist money based on what they can prove about the number of times those app’s get opened up,” DeYoung said. “So they are designing it with the intent to be addictive.”

He believes, in time, there will be a reckoning.

“And I am pretty convinced that not that far into the future we’ll look back on this era and just be shocked at the negligence, mostly of companies, maybe the ignorance of those that work with kids whether those are schools or whoever, like, ‘I can’t believe we let this destructive force play such a huge force in all our lives for such a long time,'” DeYoung said.

Kati Payne with the Office of Superintendent Public Instruction says she doesn’t know of any other public schools using the Yondr Pouch, but that the use of phones in public schools is a district-by-district decision, sometimes at the school building level, and sometimes even at the individual classroom level.

Yondr Pouches says they are used in dozens of schools in Washington state. Early partners include Discovery High School (Longview) and Futurus High School (Centralia).

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