Berkshires boarding school smartphone ban was a long time coming
Can Gen Z students handle life without access to the endless scroll?
By Aaron Pressman Globe Staff, updated July 16, 2022
The fight started between two students in a dorm called the Barn at the Buxton School last fall.
Nothing too unusual about a younger and older kid getting into a scrap — at least until another student started live-streaming the tussle from their phone. Suddenly, kids across the 150-acre campus nestled on a woody hillside in Williamstown were glued to their screens, watching the blurry figures jostle.
Maybe it wasn’t quite “The Hunger Games,” but at the private boarding school in the Berkshires, where only an air horn warning of a bear on campus might intrude on this haven of grassy meadows, secret tree forts, and a community garden, the broadcast ignited a Rashomon-like splintering of points of view. It kept debates frothing for days about who started it, and whether another student who tried to separate the pair had made things worse.
In times past, administrators would have quickly calmed the warring parties, maybe sending them off for a hike in the woods together. But the online video roiled the small community of fewer than 100 kids in grades 9 through 12 who, like their peers in schools nationwide, were already struggling socially after the pandemic lockdowns.
A few months later, in February, came an unimaginable aftershock for the Gen Z students: Smartphones would be banned entirely from campus starting this fall. And not just for the kids — for the adults, too. People will still be able to use “dumb” phones and connect to the Internet (and their favorite apps) on laptops or tablets. But the insistent, interrupting smartphones will be gone.
Buxton’s unique experiment comes at a time when the pendulum may be swinging away from technology in education, thanks to Zoom overload and the challenges of online learning that became obvious during the pandemic. If Buxton succeeds, it could help accelerate a move away from smartphones and other screens in classrooms. But if it fails, the small institution could be risking its own future by scaring away a generation of tech-savvy students with a seemingly Luddite policy.
Adults have been decrying the risks of phones and mobile apps for at least a decade, while kids have clung to their Insta’s and Snapchats ever more strongly to express and define themselves. And schools have yo-yoed back and forth between banning phones and allowing the devices, even, in some cases, encouraging their use for class projects.
Buxton’s smartphone ban was a long time coming. Teachers felt that the always-on devices seemed to be discouraging kids from starting creative projects, attending social events, and even just hanging out together.
“It was so obviously contrary to what we’re trying to do,” head of school Peter Beck said in an interview. But until Buxton’s educational ideals seemed actually at risk, solving the problem with a ban on smartphones had seemed “impossible.”
The faculty had been discussing the social challenges for a few years, but it wasn’t until after the return from the pandemic lockdown, with many students feeling isolated and having difficulty interacting, that they decided to remove the devices altogether. After all, Buxton was founded almost 100 years ago as part of the progressive movement in education to experiment with new approaches and foster more engaged students.
“Young people were looking for community in those digital spaces, but that’s looking for nourishment in places where it’s actually absent,” art teacher Frank Jackson said. “For a school like this, where everything is really about being present with each other in conversation, it was a really difficult thing. I felt like we hit a tipping point.”
For the current cohort of students, born just as the iPhone and its rivals arrived in the late 2000s, living without a smartphone is almost unimaginable. When Beck hopped up during a routine lunch announcement in February to reveal the new policy, the students gasped and many were immediately outraged.
Eliza Goldstein, who just finished her junior year, said she rushed up to Beck afterward to protest. “I’m going to be a senior, how could you do this?” Goldstein, who has had a smartphone since the fifth grade, remembered saying.
There was also some misunderstanding at first. “I thought we were going to be cut off from the world,” sophomore Alani Carasone said. But she and others calmed down once they realized that Internet connections would still be allowed on other devices.
Most parents, who were given a heads-up via e-mail about the announcement, had a more positive reaction.
Heidi Soule, 46, was on the receiving end of a furious call from her daughter, only in her first year at Buxton, who said she wanted to leave the school next year because of the ban.
Smartphones have been a critical connection for the family. Living in Tbilisi in the Republic of Georgia for work, the parents rely on apps like WhatsApp to chat with their daughter (whom they asked the Globe not to name) across continents at no cost.
But as the family learned more about the new policy and discussed relying on laptops or tablets, tempers cooled. “As someone who’s lived overseas for many years, you absolutely do not need a smartphone to reach people,” Soule said.
It’s not clear yet whether the new policy will prompt some current students to drop out or attract new students with the appeal of a smartphone-free campus. So far, only one student has decided not to return to the school, which costs $62,000 per year for boarding students.
“We’re not trying to rewind time but specifically to take away the kind of endless distraction of the smartphones,” biology teacher and dean of academics Linda Burlak said. She’s been teaching at the school since 1988. “My institutional memory goes back to when the phones were the things that were hanging on the hallway,” she said.
In the spring, some students and staff tried out a kind of high-tech “dumb” phone known as the Light Phone. The $300 device has a black and white e-ink screen like those found on a Kindle, which is less distracting than a full color screen. It can make calls, send texts, and has a few simple apps but no social media, photo, or video programs.
Some of the students who tried it were unimpressed. “It’s very small and I feel like it would be easy to lose and the battery really does not last that long,” Yamalia Marks, who will be a senior next year, said. She’s thinking of going ultra-retro instead. “I’m going to get a BlackBerry,” Marks said. “I love the flippy buttons, the whole flip phone essence of it.”
Prompted by one of her favorite retro TV shows, Eliza Goldstein may go even more old school. “I’m thinking of a pager,” she said. “They’re fun, like in ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ ”
History teacher John Kalapos, who graduated from the school in 2013, ran the weekly tech committee meetings that discussed aspects of the policy. Even just nine years ago, when Kalapos was a student, kids had a mix of more- and less-capable phones, he said. When they got bored, they might start a dance party or go off and build a fort in the woods. He’s seen that creative, spontaneous culture start to fade since he returned three years ago as a teacher.
“We’ve got the mediocre entertainment of the phone as opposed to the peaks and valleys of real entertainment and real boredom,” Kalapos said. “I think great ideas come from boredom.”
Kalapos and other teachers at the school expressed excitement about the new policy even though they’d also be giving up their own smartphones. “That is fundamentally attractive to me as an individual,” Kalapos said. “I won’t need to check my phone 85 times a day. If someone wants to reach me, they can talk to me.”
The school has been a slow adopter of technology throughout its history. There are no smartboards in its classrooms — chalkboards still reign. Cell coverage was spotty for years, reducing the attraction of mobile phones for students. And Wi-Fi was introduced slowly, with time and location limits at first.
Even today, the clash of old and new is evident — students sometimes use their phones to order food via DoorDash only to have their meals grabbed from a front stoop by a meandering bear.
School officials admit the new policy is an experiment and may require tweaking during the year.
Beck hopes Buxton’s experiment will serve as encouragement for other schools to follow suit. “You have to keep thinking about what admittedly might seem ‘out there’ in this current moment that everyone might be doing two decades from now,” he said.
Not many schools have taken such a radical step. For most of the past decade, the trend has been in the opposite direction. Led by New York City in 2015, many school systems have repealed phone bans and allow students to carry the devices in schools. In part that was because of the difficulty of enforcing bans — two-thirds of high schoolers said they used their phones despite the rules in one national survey. (Boston public high school students are supposed to have phones turned off during class times.)
Also, some researchers emphasized the benefits of mobile devices as tools of learning, safety, and communications. The American Academy of Pediatrics abandoned its recommended limits on screen time for kids 5 and older in 2016. For kids outside of the mainstream, whether LGBTQ or part of a minority ethnic, religious, or racial group, smartphones have provided a lifeline to supportive peers and resources otherwise unavailable.
The academy of pediatrics moved away from strict screen limits because research found kids reacted differently depending on their personality and what they watched, according to Jason Nagata, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who has studied adolescent smartphone use. “It’s not one-size-fits-all,” he said. “Some people can use a screen to benefit, but on average most who used it more felt worse and more isolated.”
Buxton’s approach of banning smartphones while allowing other forms of Internet access could be a good compromise, Nagata said. He also supported teachers not having smartphones.
“Role modeling is really important,” Nagata said. “If you’re going to tell kids not to use phones at meals, parents shouldn’t be using them either. It’s important if students aren’t, teachers aren’t also.”
Isolation during the pandemic has emphasized both the allure and the harms of smartphones. Teenagers spent an average of 8 hours and 39 minutes per day on screens, including phones and TV, for entertainment last year, according to a survey by Common Sense Media. That was up by more than an hour per day from a 2019 survey, and almost two hours more than the survey found in 2015.
Now, educators and some child psychologists see smartphones taking time away from studies and harming social skills in ways that lead to more fights and disputes. Students unlock their phones an average of 50 times a day, Paul Weigle, chair of the media committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, noted.
In one summer program Weigle ran, kids in one group kept their phones while those in another group put them away. “We saw such a significant difference in engagement and socializing,” he said of the latter group. “They were in general much happier because they were more engaged with one another.”
Options for engagement vary from school to school, however. Bored students at most schools don’t have access to the resources at Buxton, where a small music studio, photo lab with darkroom, and ceramics workshop are open at night and on weekends. And the boarding school can make rules for what its students do at night and on weekends, while typical schools only have oversight during the school day.
Some public schools in northern Virginia are moving to ban smartphones during school hours. Such schools wouldn’t be able to enforce a complete ban — and that actually may be a better approach, according to Nagata.
“It’s also important that teens develop digital literacy and learn to self-regulate and monitor and optimize their own smartphone use,” he said. “Smartphones are not going away. Developing skills to help teens optimize their own phone use in the absence of a ban could also be helpful.”
But that’s not convincing to Franny Shuker-Haines, Buxton’s director of outreach, who participated in creating the smartphone ban. “The best way for kids to have a healthy relationship with the technology is to also have healthy growth without it,” she said. “Then they can choose as they get older how to incorporate this in their lives or not. But right now, it doesn’t feel much like a choice.”
Buxton parent Jon Calame, 53, who lives in Greenfield, is a strong supporter of the decision, but even he isn’t sure what will happen next.
“We’re all here watching in real time, what price will they pay,” he said. “Will it be devastating for Buxton, which is a small fragile school to begin with, or will it actually be the key to a beautiful surge in appreciation and interest?”
Aaron Pressman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ampressman.