Middle school can be cruel enough without also having to contend with the slings and arrows of social media, or the insults and judgments that originate online but routinely manifest during the school day.
As of January, partly as a response to cyberbullying and also to the fairly widespread sense that students remain tethered to devices during school hours, East Hampton Middle School will institute a new policy on student-owned electronic devices.
The “no display during the school day” policy, as it is being called, will forbid students from using cellphones, iPods, earphones, headphones, and other devices during the day.
It is a departure from the existing policy, which currently allows middle school students to use their devices before school, at recess, and during lunchtime.
Increasingly, students are sneaking screen time into other parts of the day, with some girls reportedly stashing their phones on the insides of fur-lined Ugg boots for stealth access.
“This policy has been some time coming,” said Charles Soriano, the middle school’s principal, in a conversation earlier this week. Early Friday morning, he sent an e-mail alert to parents, updating them about the change. “Over the past year, I’ve witnessed a number of incidents with phones, where students are either over-sharing or bullying someone. Impulsivity and electronics don’t mix. It’s a toxic combination.”
Though students are still likely to remain tethered to such devices during after-school, weekend, and evening hours, Dr. Soriano sees it as his responsibility to set limits during the part of the day he can control. “It can lead to situations where children are hurt and bullied and teased and made fun of,” he said.
The new policy, which was created by the school’s site-based committee, comprised of administrators, teachers, staff members, and parents, will go into effect once students return in January. From Jan. 6 through 10, the school will offer a one-week grace period, during which time students will be given reminders and warnings, but no formal consequences.
But for the remainder of the year, from the moment students enter the building until the dismissal bell rings, cellphones must be in either off or silent mode and stored in lockers or on their person (but hidden from sight in either a backpack or pocket). Should students fail to adhere to the new policy, a series of disciplinary actions will ensue, from confiscation of the device to detention to in-school suspension.
“The decision was a wise one and long overdue,” said Marie Klarman, whose son is in sixth grade. “Kids don’t need to be in 24/7 contact with their peers.” She considers her son to be in the minority of students not in possession of a cellphone.
Ms. Klarman said she has watched a generation come of age glued to their screens. “Whether texting and Tweeting or on Facebook, these kids are sleeping with their phones and bringing them to the table when they’re not supposed to,” she said. “It leads to antisocial tendencies and behaviors. Children don’t know how to communicate outside of typing a note. The art of conversation is being lost.”
Partly, she sees it as a developmental hurdle. Recent research has shown that the frontal lobe of the brain, or the region that governs decision-making and self-control, doesn’t fully develop until the mid-20s.
“They’re sending around these half-clothed ‘selfies’ and they have no idea this stuff is out there forever,” said Ms. Klarman. “You can say it until you’re blue in the face, that you can destroy your life, but until the frontal lobe develops, the child truly believes they are invincible.”
Courtney Garneau, a site-based committee member and mother of a sixth-grade student, is similarly in support of the new policy. She said that when students could use their phones during recess and lunchtime, many teachers and staff observed that students preferred to text, send photos, and Instagram their peers, rather than socialize in person.
With two children at the John M. Marshall Elementary School, Ms. Garneau thinks it’s a policy that should be extended to the district’s younger grades as well.
Adam Fine, the principal of East Hampton High School, said the high school has had a “no display” policy for many years. However, since September, he has shifted away from the policy, now permitting the devices so that students can use them as Internet-enabled learning tools. Though allowed in the hallways, Mr. Fine said that teachers govern their use during class time.
“Personally, I would like to expand their instructional use,” Mr. Fine wrote in an e-mail. “I feel we have an untapped resource that can be used to improve teaching and learning.”
In recent years, several districts around the country have successfully adopted Bring Your Own Device policies, which allow students to bring in smartphones, laptops, and tablets to use during class. Meanwhile, other districts have also adopted 1-to-1 programs, where districts supply each student with his or her own device. At the last school board meeting in early December, members intimated that resources devoted to technology would likely comprise a significant portion of next year’s budget debate.
So far, neither Ms. Garneau nor Dr. Soriano have received much in the way of pushback. And for parents concerned about being able to contact their children during school hours, Ms. Garneau said that many will simply have to revert to the old way of doing things.
“If I need to get a hold of him, I will just call the school,” said Ms. Garneau. “Like everyone did before we all had phones.”
“If people need to call their parents, they can just go down to the office,” said Talia Albukrek, 12, who is in the seventh grade and a member of the student government. Earlier this year, she received an iPhone as a birthday present.
Though generally in support of the policy, Talia considered one potential downside — not being able to document things happening during the school day, whether through pictures or video.
Dr. Soriano is the first to concede that his students are digital natives, accustomed to growing up in an interconnected world where devices have always been present. He believes his teaching staff is uniquely tasked with demonstrating acceptable use, and denoting special times when such devices might help to enrich and enhance lessons.
“We’ll reevaluate at the end of the year and see where we stand,” he said.