Help teens to switch off

8th July 2016 at 00:00
How a new schools awareness project is encouraging young people to curb their digital addiction, ditch their devices and reprioritise their offline lives

Ten hours is a long time; long enough to fly from London to Barbados. However, for some teenagers it’s only just enough time to keep up with the goings-on on their smartphones.

“Earlier this year, my phone usage was up to 10 hours some days,” says Julia Usher, a 14-year-old pupil at Newcastle High School for Girls.

Many young people spend masses of time glued to screens. A recent report from Ofcom, for example, found that 16- to 24-year-olds spent more than 27 hours a week online. That’s not to mention texting, gaming and selfie-taking.

In the midst of this tech-obsession, a new initiative launched last year designed to make schoolchildren aware of the downsides of screen overuse: The Reconnect Project.

“It came from my own experiences,” says founder Erin Cotter, whose background is in media. “We relocated to Australia for a few months so I bought my children (then aged 14) laptops to stay in touch with friends. They created public profiles. Selfies came into our home and you could see how that changed how they saw themselves. Social media likes became significant. Quite quickly, I saw the impact on their self-esteem.”

However, it was crucial to Cotter that social media wasn’t the project’s sole focus. Extensive research led her to believe that it was important to raise awareness of pitfalls of excessive screen time more generally. Indeed, a report from Public Health England noted that children who spend more time using screens (computers, watching TV, gaming) tend to experience higher levels of anxiety and depression – and the relationship is particularly negative among those who use them for more than four hours a day. On a more basic level, they risk missing out on everything else that life has to offer.

How it works

The project involves six one-hour interactive lessons, designed to be taught within key stage 3 or 4 PSHE by teachers, covering issues such as the effect of screen use on concentration, online and offline relationships, and safety online. The project culminates in an optional challenge week where children give up (or at least reduce) personal screen use. So far, eight schools have run it and a number of others have requested the scheme of work.

For Cotter, it’s not about demonising devices.

‘‘I have a smartphone and use the computer a lot. But I don’t think they should replace everything else,” she stresses. The challenge week encourages kids to re-engage with their offline lives – hobbies, sport, spending time with family and friends.

Interestingly, one of the institutions that has run the project already is The Studio in Liverpool – a school for 14- to 19-year-olds that specifically focuses on the digital, technology and gaming sectors. They ran the project for Year 10 pupils and principal Shaun McInerney plans to do so again next year.

“We have a positive approach to mobile technology. Students regularly use mobile devices in class for taking notes, collaborating and organising themselves,” explains McInerney.

However, he believes that while training up the digital gurus of tomorrow, it’s vital to teach them to use such tools responsibly.

“It is important for them to use technology consciously rather than unconsciously. The fear is that unregulated and unrestricted use erodes the self-control necessary for young people to be successful socially, academically and professionally. We’ve had parents who needed to sleep with their router under their pillow to prevent their children gaming through the night. So for us, this is also an issue of wellbeing and personal development. Through projects such as this, we are engaging our students in responsible use.”

The impact

One of the project’s key benefits appears to be improving children’s relationships.

“The social aspects of school are heavily influenced by social media. It can lead to or become part of arguments and even bullying. Phone messages can be misinterpreted and there is pressure for children to always be online, communicating in groups. Many pupils recognise their phones are a distraction and they don’t talk to family or friends the way they used to,” says Nick Packard, SEND coordinator and director of social and emotional learning at Newcastle High School for Girls.

He ran The Reconnect Project this year and believes it’s made a big difference: “Because this has been discussed, it’s almost like it’s OK for the girls not to respond to a message within five seconds. It’s given them a bit of space not to be absorbed all the time.”

Julia, who attends the school, curbed her 10 hours’ screen time in challenge week. “I went out more with my family and engaged more with my friends in everyday conversation.”

She’s since cut her phone use down to about an hour a day.

Offline relationships help kids develop essential social skills too, suggests Michele Staniland, lead behaviour teacher at a London comprehensive that ran The Reconnect Project last year. “In the old days you’d go into a shop and say, ‘Can I have a job?’ Kids would find those face-to-face interactions really difficult because they’re used to doing things remotely,” she notes.

“Real-life interactions develop you in many ways. You learn how to recognise when someone is interested or bored, for example,” adds Cotter, “Being able to communicate could impact young people’s sense of connectedness and their employability.”

Some schools might question whether teaching children to limit screen use is a job for parents, not teachers. However, if it impacts behaviour and learning, others may feel it’s well within their remit.

Staniland notes that a high percentage of behavioural issues at her school are related to social media. And Cotter believes that screen obsession may impact learning. “I’m concerned with many young people’s need for constants – affirmation, stimulation, recognition – as it can curtail their ability to deep think or process. They miss out on so much: staring at the stars and wondering what’s out there, instead of just Google-searching and coming up with an immediate answer.”

Future plans

The Reconnect Project was such a success in Packard’s school that he plans to run it every year. It was taught in Year 9 (although he is considering dropping this to Year 8) and children from Year 12 and 13 got involved, too – running special “phone-free” activities at lunchtimes, for example.

Of course, this all takes time. “You’ve got to spend time with the teachers delivering it to make sure they’re comfortable. There was quite a lot involved in terms of communicating the ideas to parents and working with older girls who ran activities. So it wasn’t like a normal PSHE unit of work,” he says. He also had to condense the hour-long lessons into 30 minutes to fit them in.

For some schools, even this may prove too much. Staniland, who ran the project in Year 10, struggled to complete it. His school didn’t have enough time to do the challenge week, and this year the schedule is too jam-packed to run the project at all.

On top of that, the project is currently not free to run. It is charged at £250, which – with current budget pressures and no external evaluation of the project – may prove a barrier.

Cotter responds that she has developed a 25-minute version of the programme in response to the feedback, and there is a version for primary schools in the works. She adds that she has also applied for a grant to independently evaluate the project.

It’s important to note that while those who have used it may have had some logistical issues, they were otherwise unanimously positive about the schemes of work in terms of idea and content.

Children are often surprised by the reconnect challenge, says Cotter.

“Kids will say, ‘I’m addicted, I can’t do anything about it’. Often, it’s not nearly as hard as they think and that’s empowering for them to experience. Something a boy at one school said always sticks in my mind. He said: ‘It’s weird, but somehow coming off my phone made me feel...happy.’”

Jessica Powell is a freelance writer based in Melbourne @JPJourno You can find out more about The Reconnect Project at

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