A Week Without Online Devices: What Students Learned

BY ROZ THOMPSON/School Administrator, April 2017

 Roz Thompson
Imagine asking high school students to give up their treasured cellphones for a full week to forego social media, video games, computers and television. Crazy idea or an opportunity to learn about themselves?

Last fall in the 6,400-student Tumwater School District, located just south of Olympia, Wash., we thought of this distinctive challenge as an amazing opportunity because it connected logically to the discussions we were having with students, staff and parents around managing digital devices. We ultimately found nine students in one of our sophomore world history classes at Black Hills High School willing to participate in this “Digital Detox” project along with one capable teacher, Dave Heywood, who was willing to lead the conversations.

This unusual project came about because of our districtwide interest in the documentary film “Screenagers.” We first showed it during our in-service days for staff last August and then held a community showing in early September.

The interest generated by these two events led us to schedule viewings for all of our secondary school students. Because we hosted so many showings, the producers for “Screenagers” encouraged the programmers with NBC’s “The Today Show” to ask whether our students would consider temporarily giving up their personal technology, a short-term detoxification effort that local news media termed “digital cold turkey.”

Beyond the series of discussions involving parents and students after the local showings of “Screenagers,” we had been conducting other conversations about managing digital devices, leading up to the start of the school year. At one of our two high schools, staff decided to turn off the public Wi-Fi in the hopes of helping students manage their cellphone use. The 9th-grade staff at this building also decided to have students turn in their phones during each class period in clear pocket hangers in the front of each classroom.

 Nine high school students in Washington’s Tumwater School District surrendered all of their personal technology for a week in an experiment on digital detoxification.
At our other high school, some teachers installed hooks at the front of their rooms for backpacks with the notion that cellphones stayed inside during class session, creating fewer distractions while still allowing students to keep an eye on their belongings. At both middle schools, students are expected to keep their phones in their backpacks and lockers throughout the school day.

Minimal Disruptions
So far this school year, the results in Tumwater have been encouraging. Our increased conversations about the use of technology in secondary classrooms has resulted in fewer instances of cellphones being a disruption to class time at both of our high schools.

Additionally, administrators report that staff are much more consistent with keeping students off their phones during class time unless it is for educational purposes. Students seem to be more aware of how much they use and rely on their cellphones and seem to be responding better to conversations about their use. As classroom practices on cellphone use have tightened, administrators believe student conversations about online bullying with our health teachers, school counselors and school resource officer have helped change student behavior. The school office has seen fewer suspensions.

“Screenagers” provided relevant information to the discussions in Tumwater around finding balance in our lives online with our personal devices. It continues to allow for rich conversations at our schools and contains valuable research-based information for parents in their conversations with their teenagers. (See related story below.)

Breaking Habits
As for our brave group of nine teenagers, most reported that the beginning of their week without technology was quite difficult. (The participants were lent flip phones for emergency communication during the week.) Several admitted they had trouble sleeping at first. But all of them believed it got easier as the week went on, and they discovered they did not need to rely on their phones as much. Students found different activities to fill their free moments — reading, playing music or spending time with their families. One student caught up in her studies, another now turns over his phone to his mom each night before he goes to bed, and one no longer brings her phone to school.

Yes, several of the students admit they have returned to their same online habits, but all of them were changed by the experience and the conversations that took place.

Roz Thompson is curriculum supervisor in the Tumwater School District in Tumwater, Wash. E-mail: roz.thompson@tumwater.k12.wa.us. Twitter: @rozthompson

Additional Resources
Screening 'Screenagers'
It is easy to arrange a viewing of “Screenagers” for school community groups. It can even be used as a fundraiser.

Some helpful resources and discussion guides suitable for all audience types have been developed by the film’s producers.
For full details, visit www.screenagersmovie.com.