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Teenagers and smartphones
Credit: Erin Cotter

Erin Cotter didn’t like what social media was doing to her girls. When her family left their London home to spend several months visiting relatives in Australia, her twin, teenaged daughters spent most of their time staring at their computers.

It wasn’t just the missed opportunity to explore and meet people that bothered Cotter. All that online chatting and posting was making the girls extremely self-conscious and deeply vulnerable to snide remarks that are so easily made and amplified in the digital realm.

“I came back feeling very angry and worried about the effects this stuff has on the mental health of children,” said Cotter. So, with the help of like-minded parents and other volunteers, she created the disCONNECT project — a series of classroom activities prompting teenagers to reflect on their social-media habits, culminating with a week of abstaining from smartphones, gaming consoles and other networked devices. After a successful pilot at one London school earlier this spring, the project is rapidly expanding, and the organizers hope it will spread across the U.K. and beyond.

A filmmaker by training, Cotter’s no Luddite. She runs a nonprofit called Youth Culture TV (YCTV), where teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds learn media production, including digital media. She says the capital letters in disCONNECT signify the project’s emphasis on cultivating richer offline experiences and relationships, rather than just retreating “off the grid.”

“It’s all about balance,” said Cotter. “There are so many wonderful things we can do with technology. I use Google docs. I have a Facebook account. The project has a website, and videos on YouTube. But, there’s a point where we lose control and the technology takes over.”

”As with any ‘drug’ withdrawal program, they wanted and needed to talk about how the lack of smartphones was affecting their lives.”

No doubt many of us are fast approaching that point, with young people leading the charge. According to a 2015 survey by the British market-research firm, Childwise, teenagers in the U.K. spend about eight hours in front of a screen every day. Meanwhile, nearly one quarter of American teenagers surveyed by the Pew Research Center said they are online “almost constantly.”

With smartphones increasingly ubiquitous, Cotter senses a broad cultural shift in how people relate to their devices. “Setting out your smartphone at dinner parties used to be cool, but now I think people are realizing that they can actually say no, and that enough is enough,” she said.

Teenagers and smartphones
Erin Cotter

Indeed, digital detox is all the rage, including device-free camping, art retreats and yoga retreats for adults; restaurants offering discounts to diners who can keep their phones in their pockets, and UNICEF’s “Tap Project” where every 15 minutes that participants could stay off their cell phones earned enough money (pledged by sponsors) to fund a day of clean water in the developing world. Every May, the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood promotes national “Screen-Free Week,” a recent evolution of the “TV Turnoff Week” that they started in the 1990s. And earlier this year, a New York City public radio podcaster named Manoush Zomorodi launched, “Bored and Brilliant: The Lost Art of Spacing Out.” The project’s hypothesis was that constantly turning to our smartphones robs our brains of the downtime that fosters deep, creative thinking. Zomorodi challenged listeners to a week of disconnecting tasks, such as keeping smartphones pocketed during the commute to work or deleting a favorite time-sucking app. She expected a few hundred participants, but more than 20,000 volunteered.

Cotter’s target is teenagers, those “digital natives” for whom smartphones link together autonomy and identity into one glowing package. When Cotter first started shopping her project to schools, many teachers and administrators balked.

“People said, ‘Pah! They won’t do it. Young people won’t give up their phones,’ ” Cotter recalls. “But the idea of this project is that a lot of kids just haven’t thought about how much time they’re spending online. Once they experience some space, some time away from the technology, they get an awareness that they can switch it off sometimes.”

Finally, Cotter found a teacher eager to take on the disCONNECT challenge with her students. Sally Llewellyn, a fellow filmmaker, was teaching media studies at Capital City Academy, a school in a lower-income London neighborhood with a large population of recent immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. Llewellyn’s students were constantly using their smartphones—playing music, setting their morning alarm clocks, snapping photos, and checking in with each other and often with friends and family abroad.

“I loved the idea of the project. Anything that takes students out of their comfort zone at this age is a good thing,” Llewellyn said.

Ironically enough, the process of disconnecting began with downloading a phone-tracking app that gave students baseline measures of their smartphone habits.

What followed were class debates about the good and bad of being constantly connected, testimonials about sexting and cyberbullying, and brainstorming sessions where students tried to imagine their world without the Internet. Then, they made a plan for the offline activities and endeavors they’d pursue in lieu of Snapchatting and Tweeting, a process aided by some free passes to museums, shows and sporting events.

Teenagers and smartphones
Smartphones that students from London’s Capital City Academy surrendered for a week earlier this spring for the disCONNECT project. Credit: Erin Cotter

Finally, on the Monday morning of reckoning, the students handed over their smartphones to Llewellyn. In exchange, they received old-fashioned text and voice-only phones, prepaid for the week. They could use computers for homework, but that’s it. No Internet. No borrowing a parent’s iPad. No gaming.

The class made a video documenting the week. It shows their progression from shell-shocked despair to a realization, at least by some, that they had gained as much as, or more than, they had lost.

They read books, talked more with their friends face-to-face and did their homework with time to spare.

“It’s cheered me up for some reason, I don’t know why,” one boy explained in the video. “I feel different. I can concentrate more.”

While a week-long respite won’t relieve the pressures of being constantly connected, some students did report that being disconnected for a while made them feel more relaxed, and “strangely happy,” as one boy put it.

The experience also brought the class closer together. “As with any ‘drug’ withdrawal program, they wanted and needed to talk about how the lack of smartphones was affecting their lives,” Llewellyn said.

At the end of their offline week, “all the students were back on their phones straight away,” Cotter admits. “But they all said, and I want to believe this, that they’ll switch it off once in a while.”

After the class was featured in The Guardian, 25 other London-area schools pledged to have their students disCONNECT either in June or after the summer holiday. Cotter has also heard from schools in the United States, Canada, Germany and France. She was most excited to hear from a group of teenagers who wanted to take on the disCONNECT challenge themselves.

“Eventually, I’d love it to be youth led,” she said. ”It’s empowering. I really enjoy how brilliantly imaginative, creative and smart young people can be when they realize they have choices.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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