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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

No-phone day at Saint George’s school leaves students feeling free: ‘I would do this every day’

St. George’s juniors Finn Horsted, left, and Will Roberts play through a game of Connect 4 on their lunch break in the absence of their cellphones during a “no cellphone day” Thursday at St. George’s School.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Something was missing in Saint George’s School on Thursday. A lot of somethings.

The Upper School, which houses around 230 sixth- to 12th-graders nestled amid ponderosa on the curves of the Little Spokane River, went phone-free for the day.

Students and staff at the small nonreligious private school encouraged each other to leave their personal devices out of reach for the entire day. Most complied, many eager, and all noted changes in their school’s environment.

“We’re interacting,” high schooler Edie Wolff said.

Motivated by research exploring phone addiction and the detrimental effects phone use has on student mental health, counselor Kelsey Nylund suggested celebrating the upcoming national no phone day observed Thursday. It was an “experiment,” said Nathan Lill, head of the Upper School, or high school, to give kids the chance to reflect on their phone-free day and whatever emotional or behavioral response the absence elicited.

“We’re in a moment right now where the technologies that are laid against education are so strong and pervasive, and we’re really fighting an uphill battle with students,” Lill said. “It’s a perfect time to kind of challenge and see if we can disrupt what are the programmed sensibilities that we have of needing devices constantly, how does that affect your focus and your attention span?”

There was no clear consensus from students on the day of their detox; the school was a mixed bag of anxiety, relief, the fear of missing out and freedom, kids said.

At first, Lill said students were resistant to the idea. When announced to the whole school during a morning meeting, Lill said he saw kids twitching and fidgeting, and Nylund heard some rumblings of refusal to partake. Once they ruminated on it, students were more willing, even eager, for a phone-free day.

The school policy gave senior Lauren West an excuse to ignore her phone for the day without feeling social pressures to be constantly connected.

“I was excited,” she said. “It might be an unpopular opinion, but to have a reason to disconnect and not feel like a nerd.”

Nearly the whole school was on board for the day, with a couple of students stealing peaks at their phones, assuming the signature midscroll posture: neck-bent and slouched over their phone while walking through the hallway. The group participation was part of the freeing feeling, kids said.

“I would throw away my phone right now, but only if the rest of the world did it too,” junior Savvy Briceño said. “I’d be comfortable in like the ‘80s.”

“We all know our phones are bad for us,” junior Hrair Garabedian said. “When we all do it together, it makes it easier.”

In releasing the tether to their phones, kids found they could focus on the present, whether that be assignments in school that they found they completed much faster or passing by peers in the hallway.

“Half the time I don’t know who anybody is, like, in the high school because they always just cover their face with their phones,” said seventh-grader Ava Werner. “So, I’m like, ‘Oh, are you new here?’ “

“Normally, when I’m in tutorial, I kind of get distracted on my phone when I feel, like, buzzy or anything,” seventh-grader Hadley Jackson said, referring to her study hall period known as tutorial. “But when I was in tutorial today, I got all of it done, and normally we get, like, one thing done.”

Without her phone to turn to, seventh-grader Evie Matousek allowed her mind to wander while in class.

“I looked outside, and I was like, ‘Whoa, I haven’t seen that window in a while,’ ” she said. “I was like, ‘That’s a new window,’ but then I looked outside, and I saw the trees and I felt, like, really happy about it.”

While the phoneless day put some at ease, it was also a source of anxiety in some respects. Seventh-grader Declan Murphy worried that he couldn’t reach his parents in an emergency, though they could contact the school to get in touch with students, and Lill informed parents ahead of time of the phone-free day.

High schooler Sarah Harbaugh noticed she was “more twitchy” without her phone to turn to. Others agreed, many saying they constantly felt like they were forgetting something when moving from place to place. One teacher passed out fidget toys to keep the kids’ hands busy.

Many middle school girls were wary that they would miss breaking news.

“I was really worried that we wouldn’t see what was happening with Taylor Swift’s new album,” Werner said as the rest of the girls erupted into a chorus of agreeing, “Yeahs.”

The pop star was scheduled to release her 11th studio album, “The Tortured Poets Department,” at 9 p.m. Thursday. The girls said she’s known to tease hints, lyrics or tracks ahead of a release. The thought that they should miss a juicy preview filled the young Swifties with dread.

“It’s like the one day that like we might need to see if something’s changing with that,” Werner said.

Teachers said they noticed a change in students, Many said they were different, without being able to put their finger on how.

Math teacher Jack Wren collected data with his students before the phoneless Thursday. In a 35-minute class period, his class received 90 notifications that each stole a moment of the students’ attention.

The day of the voluntary detox, students were on time more often, Wren said. They asked better questions and were more engaged with their lesson. They excused themselves to use the restroom less than on a normal day.

The engagement with each other and with their studies is beneficial for brain development, a huge part of adolescence, counselor Nylund said.

“We’re learning how to be social, we’re learning how to form those executive functioning skills; there’s so much that is being learned during the teen years,” Nylund said. “Putting a phone in front of them deters so much of that, because they don’t have to have the face-to-face conversation or even confrontation.”

Following the majorly positive reactions from students and support from parents, Lill said the school would consider adopting some sort of phone-use reduction policy down the line. While he swears he can still hear phantom pings from his phone buried in his desk drawer like The Tell Tale Heart, and he covered his Apple Watch with his shirt sleeve to deter peaking, the overwhelming feeling is freedom.

A parent of teenagers, Lill feels in his role as head of the Upper School he can make changes on a larger scale that parents may feel otherwise powerless to institute.

“We don’t have the wherewithal to fight corporations that employ teams of psychologists that program apps and devices to be as addictive as possible,” Lill said. “So as a parent, what are you to do in the face of that? You have no ability to fight that battle, so institutions in some ways have to be supportive of, like, a collective reimagining of what that looks like.”

Editor’s note: This story has been amended to reflect correct spelling of a student’s name and the pronouns used by another.