Editorial: Screen solutions

“No one talks to each other anymore” has become a common refrain in the years since the smartphone became ubiquitous. In line at the grocery store or post office, riding a bus and even at home or riding in a car with family, people are likely to be looking at a smartphone screen.

“You never have to tell kids in the cafeteria to quiet down anymore,” a Mount Desert Island High School teacher told a student interviewer in the spring, “so many students are plugged in to their technology.”

In the cafeteria, the library or a study hall, some students are using their phones to listen to music, which teenagers have argued for generations actually helps them focus on a primary task. Recent research suggests they might be right; some types of music, for some people, can help minimize the impact of distractions.

But the dramatic downturn in face to face social interaction at lunchtime is a worry.

Kids and adolescents are facing an epidemic of anxiety and depression and screen time is among the risk factors. Many adults have work to do on their own habits, to be sure, but schools have an important role to play in teaching students how to use technology in appropriate ways.

The phenomenon of checking and using one’s phone even when spending time with friends and family has become known as “phubbing,” or phone snubbing.

According to a 2016 study published in the journal Computers and Human Behavior, people who reported phubbing — interrupting an in-person social interaction to turn their attention to a digital one — were more likely to be on the receiving end of the behavior. In groups, social scientists say a false-consensus effect is often at work: Someone who assumes it’s no big deal to check her phone won’t feel social pressure not to do it.

Middle schools on Mount Desert Island collect students’ phones at the beginning of the school day and return them when school is over. Some are experimenting with mostly phone-free school dances, too.

At MDI High School, students keep their phones with them and it’s up to individual teachers to enforce rules about their use.

“Clear expectations and protocols” help, said Principal Matt Haney, adding, “phones are not going to cause the end of the world, as some of us Generation X folks might believe.”

A community group organized a screening of the documentary “Screenagers” in February 2018; another is in the works for this winter. It’s an important conversation to be having. Hopefully these discussions will continue and lead to a policy for phones at the high school that can help push the social consensus around their use in a healthy direction.

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