How to Survive Middle School Without a Phone

three middle schoolers smiling

Middle schools is a time for milestones. For many students, this will be the first time they need to change classes or use a locker combination. They will experience transitions in both their bodies and their interests. This awkward time often marks the end of their childhood friendships and the beginnings of ones that may stay with them for the rest of their lives.  Some middle schoolers will experience their first kiss while others will find a passion that might inspire them into a future career. They will shape their identity and discover who they want to be. However, all of these moments tend to pale in comparison to the one milestone that both parents and students tend to obsess over: a middle schooler’s first phone.

Technology is a huge source of anxiety for middle schoolers and their parents. One of the most frequent concerns we hear from parents is about their teenager’s phone use. Their young adolescents, who once loved going outside and being active, now sit all day staring at a tiny screen. Students worry about it too. Many of them recognize how addictive that small piece of technology can be and recognize how much power it has over them. However, the access to friends and entertainment a phone provides is difficult to refuse. Our culture also makes its challenging for middle schoolers to not have a phone. Teachers and coaches are increasingly communicating directly to students through texts and email. It really begs many parents and students to ask the question: How to survive middle school without a phone?

Creating an Environment Without Phone Use

Tal pointing to a tree and lecturing while students stand and listen

Tal Galton from Snakeroot Ecotours giving a lesson to students during student orientation.

At AMS, students don’t have phones. They don’t have any devices with apps, touchscreens, or video games. They don’t even have flip phones. While old iPods (the ones with the little wheel) or other music devices are allowed, students leave all their other devices home. They don’t need them. If they need to call home, they are welcome to use the school’s main phone line. If they want to ask a friend a question, they just wait until they see them and do it face to face. When they go home to their boarding houses, students are encouraged to call their teachers if they have questions about an assignment or even drop by their house. We eliminate any need for personal devices so that they have the opportunity to keep experiencing life without one.

For most parents, this is welcome news. For our students, this policy makes them nervous. Even if a student has only had their own phone for a couple months, the idea of letting it go is scary and stressful. How will they keep in touch with their friends or know what’s happening? What will they do when they feel awkward or bored?  Their phone quickly became a crutch for them in difficult times, a way to escape pressures and stress. How will they will survive a whole semester without accessing their phone?

No Phone, No Problem

The truth is that it’s easy to not have a phone when no one around you has one either. Since no student has a phone (and staff only use their devices when they are not responsible for students), our middle schoolers don’t tend to miss their devices. During breaks, they play together, skateboarding in the courtyard or climbing on the apple trees. They run to the pottery studio to work on a project or pull out a sketchbook to draw. They talk to one another and make their own fun.

Teachers help students breakdown their changing relationship to technology. We talk about technology as a tool, something that provides information and helps people create. Students will use laptops in class and learn how to word process and research subjects. They will learn how powerful technology can be and how access is important for equality. We reflect how it can provide entertainment, but that it can also be addictive. We help students recognize the ways in which apps manipulate people to keep using them and how our brains react to their various chimes and colors. We don’t want them to be technological deficient, but to use it responsibly and not become dependent on it.

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Often students are able to consider on how destructive their device use can be. Once they a step away, they can recognize how their personalities and motivations change when they have unfettered access. They see how they prioritize using their phone to even eating or sleeping. These reflections hopefully help them think about how they want to interact with technology in the future after they leave AMS.

middle schoolers on a backpacking trip

Getting Off to the Right Start

The transition isn’t always easy. At the start of the year, before they have had the chance to make friends, you can see students nervously checking their pockets. They feel awkward and want to reach for their phones as stand in security blankets. This is why the first week of school is so important at AMS and why we create a schedule that guarantees they will make friends and recognize how much fun they can have without their devices.

Our orientation week immediately takes students into the backcountry where they feel challenged, but also quickly get to know one another. Going backpacking, playing lots of games, and learning about their new home is a great way to help them let go of their budding addictions to technology and see that they don’t actually need a device to enjoy themselves. Once these new patterns are established, we witness them become more and more excited about the year to come. They ask about what hikes they can go on or how to properly use our art spaces. They see the potential for creativity and interaction. Most importantly, they stop asking how to survive middle school without a phone, but instead just enjoy being a middle schooler!

-by Nicholas Maldonado