The Benefits of an Intentional Technology Policy

At North Country School (NY), a junior boarding school for fourth through ninth graders, students don’t have access to cellphones––in or out of the classroom. On the first day of school, all the students turn in their phones to school administrators, and they don’t see them again until they depart for break.  

We developed and implemented this policy in the early 2000s—as soon as technology became an expectation of the educational experience. Given the timing, it was easier to implement as phones weren’t as heavily relied upon. However, we had both student and parent buy-in, which helped us to succeed.  

So much of the North Country School identity is about thoughtfully engaging with the people living the experience with you, and as such, our policy was a proactive adherence to our founding identity––not just a reaction to the internet, cellphones, or social media. We wanted to provide our students with the knowledge and practice of using technology as an educational resource and to ensure they didn’t lose the day-to-day connections that makes our school community so meaningful.  

Not allowing phones might seem unusual in a world in which where most students rely on technology to assist with so many aspects of their everyday lives, but the impact of this policy on students and school culture has been very positive.  

Increased Interaction

Regardless of the impact of smartphones on learning outcomes, it has a decided impact on people’s interactions. In schools, cellphones can become the intermediary between learners and learning experiences. They embed passivity by presenting a path of least resistance.  

When you remove phones from the environment, there is instantly a greater emphasis on social interaction between people, between people and their surroundings, and between people and the pursuit of knowledge. More learning gains occur in the third space—the seemingly unremarkable interactions that take place in passing, in waiting in line, in packing up bags, in transitioning between activities.  

At NCS, the students are engaged in process and people in a way that would not be possible if they could default to their phones. There are moments of true downtime in the busy school day where students speak, walk, and engage with one another rather than with their phones. This is most evident at mealtime, when students congregate outside the dining room, waiting for faculty to open the double doors into the family-style dining room. Students chat as they head into lunch and wait behind their chairs as the family-style meal is set. In the absence of phones, students chat, reflect, and process with one another.  

The students at NCS are all on the same level of human engagement with the day and the people in front of them. They are not distracted by so many of the aspects associated with adolescent technology use. They are free to be themselves and to develop their own sense of self directed by the in-person interactions of their daily life.  

“I like the no phones policy because I enjoy what I’m doing in the moment,” says Mary, an NCS seventh grader. “When I have my phone, I base everything that I do on what my phone is doing. I think it’s good for me to not have my phone.”   

​​​Reduced Risk 

It's also worth noting that removing phones from middle schoolers’ downtime mitigates risk. It’s an opportunity to shelter vulnerable youth from the culture of incessant broadcasting and instantaneous rewards. In his recent Atlantic article, “End the Phone-Based Childhood Now,” Jonathan Haidt argues that “smartphone-based life, it turns out, alters or interferes with a great number of developmental processes” related to physical, analytical, creative, and social development.  

Removing unregulated internet access prevents the disruptions that come from adolescent smartphone use at a time when their brains are not capable of knowing how their decisions may impact their futures. For example, posting a picture that they get teased for and later regret. This prevents behavioral disruptions, particularly cyberbullying, from infiltrating school culture.  

And though they may not realize it (and may even begrudge it), our middle schoolers are freed from the pressure of mass conformity—they are not immersed in an approval-seeking metaverse that strips their sense of self one “like” at a time.  

“Even a girl who knows, consciously, that Instagram can foster beauty obsession, anxiety, and eating disorders might sooner take those risks than accept the seeming certainty of being out of the loop, clueless, and excluded,” Haidt says. “And indeed, if she resists while most of her classmates do not, she might, in fact, be marginalized, which puts her at risk for anxiety and depression, though via a different pathway than the one taken by those who use social media heavily.”  

There’s no competing with technology. In this sense, NCS’s policy is preventing a “collective action trap,” where cellphone and social media use by some affects the experience of all and can harm adolescents who don’t even use it. Removing access for all students at NCS allows them to focus on the things that matter and to avoid many of the pressures that come with social media. “Social media, especially in middle school, is so... messy,” says Mary. 

For any schools interested in implementing a similar policy, my advice is to do it and don’t look back. If schools can minimize the impact of technology on adolescent culture, conversation, and classrooms, they can help facilitate meaningful opportunities for reflective, interpersonal skill building in the third space.

Matthew Smith

Matthew Smith is Director of School at North Country School in Lake Placid, New York.