Administrators at Southern Alamance Middle School in Graham, NC, recently removed bathroom mirrors after discovering students were spending copious amounts of classroom time in front of them creating TikTok videos.
Some students were asking to use the bathroom five or more times a day and spending upwards of five minutes out of class during each excused absence, according to Les Atkins, spokesperson for Alamance-Burlington schools. School administrators agreed to remove the bathroom mirrors about three weeks ago. Students requiring the use of a mirror for legitimate reasons such as adjusting contact lenses or checking for food in braces can, with permission, use the bathroom mirror in the cafeteria or the nurse’s office.
“Since removing the mirrors, we have seen a drastic decrease in bathroom visits from students asking to be excused just to make videos,” Les Atkins, spokesperson for Alamance-Burlington schools, told Education Week in an email. “We strive to limit distractions so students can focus on learning.”
The school’s response is, in some ways, a logical one to a problem such as cellphone distractions, one of the top classroom management challenges facing teachers today, say experts. But the strategy’s success may be short-lived.
“It is perfectly natural to first address the immediate need – whether it’s a new boundary, or some kind of response that removes an immediate mechanism that the adults may feel is contributing to the problem,” said Andrea Clyne, the president of the National Association of School Psychologists.
But the success of reactionary strategies like these may be short-lived.
Most adolescents are tech-savvy digital natives who are at least one step ahead of administrators on how to surreptitiously access social media. And adolescents’ unique stage of development both drives them to engage in activities like social media use and makes it particularly challenging for them to control their urge to do so, according to experts.
Adolescent development fuels need for constant connection
Clyne spent years as a school psychologist, an experience that’s given her both a clinical and hands-on understanding of adolescents, a demographic she describes as highly emotional and sensitive.
“They can feel very insecure and vulnerable with this exaggerated notion that everybody sees and pays attention to their flaws,” Clyne said.
Consequently, she said, adolescents may look for ways to gain positive affirmation, and social media use is a popular way to do so.
Hannah Leib, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist specialising in working with adolescents and teens, agrees. She also observed that this age group’s strong desire to seek peer approval is nothing new.
“They’re biologically wired to want to fit in with their peers,” Leib said, noting that years before anyone could envision anything like social media feeds, adolescence was a time when children would leave their families and begin to procreate.
“Belonging with peers is extremely important to them,” Leib said. “If making TikTok videos is the cool thing to do, that’s what they’re going to do.”
Impact of social drivers spills into school
John Arthur, the 2021 Utah Teacher of the Year and a National Teacher of the Year finalist, has been teaching for 11 years, mostly middle school-age students. In recent years, he said he’s witnessed a disturbing trend among his adolescent students: They’re showing up to school more tired than ever.
“They’re staying up later, using Snapchat and other forms of social media,” said Arthur, who is currently teaching 6th grade at Meadowlark Elementary in Salt Lake City, Utah. “The pressure to be cool, to be on, is never taken off of them now. They feel like they have to be presenting some form of themselves to their peers all the time.”
Although teachers can’t control adolescents’ late-night social media use at home, Arthur said that in a perfect world, he would eliminate students access to cellphone signals of any kind in school buildings. Formerly, Arthur would sometimes allow students to have their phones in class for creative projects like making podcasts or short films, but the temptations for non-academic purposes proved too great for students. Now, he said, “We lock them up, safe and sound.”
“Telling (adolescent) students, ‘You can have it but you can’t use it’ makes no sense, even for those with the best willpower and intentions in the world,” said Arthur, who likens the act of allowing adolescents to have cellphones in school to giving dieters donuts to keep by their side.
“We cannot expect adolescents to behave super rationally, or in a way that is beyond their developmental level,” he said. “You give them a thing that’s incredibly engaging and they’re going to engage with it.”
Many school administrators would like to enforce stricter cellphone rules that prohibit the devices from campuses entirely. But they also have to balance that desire with those of parents, many of whom think that their children should have access to a cellphone at school, particularly for an emergency.
School culture counts, say some
Given these competing interests, Clyne suggested that schools focus on cultivating cultures that are warm and affirming for students.
There’s no guarantee that such efforts will ultimately prevent school administrators from eventually responding to sneaky cellphone use during class time with desperate-seeming measures such as taking down bathroom mirrors, but it may.
“I think it’s much easier for young teens to adhere to boundaries when they feel respected by the adults setting the rules, and they feel part of the school community,” Clyne said.
Research supports this theory.
In a 2011 study including responses from 300 middle school teachers and 10,000 middle school students, researchers compared results from a school that implemented schoolwide positive behavior supports, (including teaching of social skills, teachers sending note of praise to students, posting school rules, screening for students at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders, and referring at-risk students for targeted interventions) to a school that served as a control. The school that implemented the system of supports experienced statistically significant decreases in students’ tardiness, unexcused absences, and office discipline referrals. The control school reported no significant changes in these areas. The study was published in the journal Research in Middle Level Education.
When it comes to developing schoolwide policies, Clyne recommended that administrators include students in conversations – especially those involving subjects that students feel strongly about, like cellphone use. Useful to such conversations are broad discussions that take into account why these policies are important, and how they benefit everyone in the school, she explained.
“I don’t think kids are inherently interested in breaking rules,” Clyne said. “They’re driven by the developmental need to belong.” – Education Week, Bethesda, Md./Tribune News Service