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This story is part of an ongoing series by Colorado Community Media, exploring mental health in Douglas County.
Part III of the series focused on how social media might be affecting the mental health of today's teens.
• Concerns about social media
• "Survive today and have an amazing future
• How to help kids manage social media
• The positives of social media
Last year, after seeing students exchanging hurtful messages online, Kendra Hossfeld, principal of North Star Academy in Parker, challenged her eighth-graders to a “detox week” free of device screens.
A rise in classroom distractions and decline in peer-to-peer interactions led Celine Wicks, principal of Rocky Heights Middle School in Highlands Ranch, to implement a cellphone ban at the beginning of this school year.
Another school in that feeder system, Timber Trails Elementary, also recently adjusted its policy around technology use.
In addition to a cellphone ban, the school now prohibits the use of smart watches, fitness trackers, tablets, electronic music devices and personal computers during the school day.
The Douglas County schools are trying to combat adversities caused by kids’ constant exposure to social media on smartphones, tablets and computers. Teachers and administrators say social media has changed the way kids interact on school grounds. There is more bullying and less classroom engagement, emotional attachment to others and accountability for actions.
“They can put those words out there and never be accountable to them,” said Ann Guenther, assistant principal and dean of Rocky Heights Middle School. “How they view themselves, how they developmentally form their sense of self, is coming from the wrong channels.”
When Hossfeld proposed the “detox week,” some students cried, she said. They worried their friendships would be jeopardized from having no means of communication at home.
But for many students, the week was a wake-up call.
One student counted how many times she picked up her device while doing homework, over a span of a few hours. The number was 50. Another student had 100 streaks on Snapchat, which is when someone sends direct messages back and forth with a friend for consecutive days. The student said it was becoming a part-time job, said Hossfeld.
“I had a student say she was crying out of joy because she could finally not have to worry about what everyone was saying on social media,” Hossfeld said about the detox week. “Now students were second-guessing their use. Do they need to be doing that or should they be doing something outside, shooting hoops, playing with their dog? They realized the different activities that they find more enjoyment in.”
Some parents who were concerned about not being able to reach their children by phone also had a different outlook.
“After the challenge, they were 100 percent on board when they realized their child’s mood was so much better,” Hossfeld said.
Rocky Heights had some pushback from students when it first implemented its cellphone ban. Today, kids are spending more time interacting face-to-face and they have more confidence, Guenther said. A visit to the lunchroom shows the difference.
“Last year, we’d see students eating and looking at their phones,” said Guenther. “Now, I’m seeing great conversation. I’m seeing laughter. I’m seeing eye contact.”
Schools in the district can implement their own technology policies, according to Paula Hans, the district’s public information officer.
Rocky Heights and Timber Trails still allow students to have their cellphones to call parents after school or from the bus. But the devices must be left in backpacks and turned off during the school day. Both schools also have a one-to-one laptop program, meaning every student has access to a laptop or tablet.
The decision to ban cellphones wasn’t simple, Guenther said. Changing a school’s technology policy requires inclusion of the parent community, students and staff.
“This truly is about educating everybody in your building and your student body population about understanding cellphone uses,” Guenther said. Cellphones are “fun and addicting, but there are some pretty high prices to pay.”
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