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Every teacher’s dream . . . a classroom without cell phones. Could it be? Is it even possible? Today’s guest, Gina Stukenholtz, actually convinced her students to take part in a “digital detox”, putting away their smartphones for an entire week. Listen today as Tim interviews her about her inspiration for the detox, how the detox helped her students, and why it might be good for all of us to put our devices away for a little while. Full episode transcript below.
Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz. We’re going to try something a little bit different today, and we’re going to venture outside the world of art teaching. We’re going to chat with my friend Gina Stukenholtz, a 7th-grade math and history teacher who recently went through a digital detox with her students. Now, if you’re not familiar with a digital detox, at a base level it’s basically this. You give up your smartphone and your other digital devices for any predetermined period of time. Okay? In Gina’s case, her students traded in their smartphones, and U.S. Cellular gave those kids flip phones to use for the duration of the detox.
I’ll let her tell you a little bit more about the process and why she did all of this, but I want you to think about this. Okay? As teachers, we’ve seen just how much kids rely on their phones. Okay? We’ve seen how that time has increased exponentially over the past few years, but beyond just the kind of anecdotal evidence we see, and the stories we tell about our kids with other teachers, there is real evidence out there of real issues happening. Okay? Mental health issues with teens have skyrocketed. Anxiety, ADHD, depression, and even suicides are consistently increasing with the kids that we teach. We need to ask, and I think a lot of people are asking, is technology, and social media, and screen time the cause of that? Okay? We don’t know, okay, but can cutting those things out of our lives, even temporarily, can that be beneficial? I really think it can benefit our kids and ourselves. I won’t say that that is going to be the solution, but I will say that it can’t hurt.
Let me bring on Gina so we can talk about these ideas and some of her experiences with the digital detox. I think you’ll enjoy the conversation. Gina, how are you?
Gina: I am great. It’s Friday, and we’re almost done.
Tim: Right. Good to hear. I wanted to have you on, because you’ve done this super interesting thing, which is called a digital detox. I talked a little bit about it in the intro, but if you can explain it a little bit better than me, I think that would be helpful, but more importantly, I just kind of want to ask, how did the digital detox come about, and what motivated you to do it?
Gina: Sure. Well, I’m sure a lot of teachers can agree that over the last few years, we’ve noticed a significant change in several students, whether it’s their lack of attentiveness, the need for constant … What’s the word I’m looking for? Constant entertainment.
Tim: [inaudible 00:03:09] constant stimulation, like they always need something to-
Tim: … entertain them, yeah.
Gina: It’s difficult for them to do a sustained activity for any length of them. Then also my biggest reason is, so many kids have talked to me about their anxiety, their stress levels, problems that they’re having with interactions that they’re having on social media. It just came to a point where I didn’t want to sit back and just ask why it’s happening anymore. I wanted to do something about it.
Tim: No, that makes sense. I wanted to ask you, too, I mean, I don’t know if you have any more to add to that as far as motivation, but I think it ties in with this, too, like why are you so passionate about getting kids to put away their phones for a while?
Gina: Sure. I should go back and tell you a little bit more about how this happened. We have a class in school called Scout Time, and teachers have an opportunity to do enrichment courses. It’s a lot about what teachers are passionate about. Some teachers do the Holocaust or current events, or career skills, investigations, what they might be good at someday, and I just have an interest in this, because when I look around, when I’m out in public, what I see is a very notable lack of human interaction. People have their faces in their phone even when they’re sitting in a waiting room, perhaps, and no one’s having conversations together anymore.
My husband and I talk a lot about when we go out to dinner as a family, and we have a pretty strict rule that there won’t be any phones, because if you look around, you see families who should be interacting with each other and a table full of a family, they’re all just buried in their phones. That makes me sad, and again, makes me wonder why. I’ve read tons and tons of articles about this, and it’s true. These devices were made to be addictive, and I think a large part of society is simply addicted to their devices.
I went to my administration and asked if I could teach this class about where are we at, where we are at as a society, the percentage of people who have cell phones and the increased levels of reported mental illness, whether it’s anxiety or depression. The numbers are skyrocketing. Although the research isn’t done, there is a really big correlation dating back to the year 2012 when the percentage tipped over 50% of kids who had iPhones in their hands. My administration was very supportive, and because of what they see in our school too, they definitely think it’s a topic worth delving into.
Tim: Yeah. I think that that’s a huge point is that it’s so widespread, like every kid, it seems like, has a phone. I’ve been fighting that with my own kids, which we can talk about in a little bit, like I’m resisting them getting phones at all, but I think just looking at the bigger pictures, really as teachers, I think we need to give kids the opportunity to, as you said, give sustained effort with something, and they need to sit, and think, and focus, and eventually come up with their own ideas, and they need to create.
I guess my question for you with that is, do you think that they can do those things, that creative thinking, and that focus? Can they do that better if they don’t have a device in their hands, or do you think they really need the inspiration, the communication, and the resources that are just right there at their fingertips? I guess if they need that information, if they need those resources, where is the balance between having them do it on their own and relying on the devices that they have?
Gina: You have mentioned so many good points, so I’m going to try to remember all of them. We might have to come back, but the whole purpose of my course with kids is healthy boundaries, because I don’t think anyone could argue that cell phones are awful. Cell phones allow you to do a lot of amazing things. However, if the cell phone replaces many other good parts of your life, like creative thinking because you always have access to instant information, you never have to think outside of the box, you never have to search too hard to find anything, pretty soon you lose those skills, and you become completely dependent and reliant on it.
Cell phones are good. They are an excellent tool, but they just did a really recent research about people who have cell phones on their desk, and they were having, I believe, the … What was happening, they were having conversations with really interesting people, and the people who just had the cell phones on their table reported that these people were not interesting to talk to, because they just kept waiting for their phone to go off, but the people who had their phones away and not in sight had these really good conversations, and so they say just the mere presence of a phone, because that notification, that ding, that red mark, makes us feel … Our brain. We get, whatever they call it, like a hit of dopamine. You know?
Gina: We’re always waiting for that, because it makes us feel good. It makes us feel happy. It makes us feel important, but then that also takes us away from being really tuned in to whatever we’re doing at the moment, so for artists or for anyone who is trying to create something, like I would encourage my students to use it only as a tool. That’s what I tell kids like, “Don’t let this be your life. Don’t let it control you, but use it as a tool to make your life better.” The history of technology is that. Technology is not a phone. Technology is a pencil. Technology is a steel plow. You know?
Gina: I mean, technology is great. It makes our life easy, but what we found with this technology is that it is having a pretty devastating impact on kids and adults because of the addictive factor, and the addictive factor is there. They’ve interviewed the founders of some of these companies, and they’ve admitted openly that they were created as an addiction, because then people keep coming back for more. You know what that means for companies. It means-
Gina: … dollar signs.
Tim: More money, more profits, and-
Gina: And it’s at the expense of our kids, unfortunately.
Tim: Yeah. Absolutely. I think just speaking from personal experience, I used to have the light start flashing every time I had an email, and you’re, just always feel like you need to check that like … Then I come to the realization like, “My email can wait. It can wait until tomorrow morning,” or whatever. I noticed that once that little notification light was off, I just felt so much more relaxed, like you don’t feel … It’s weird to think that, and it’s weird to say that, but it’s absolutely true where I just felt so much better just not feeling my obligation to check that phone every 30 seconds, every three minutes, whatever the case may be. I feel like that transfers to our kids. I also kind of wanted to ask you about that, too, because I know that you’re trying the digital detox yourself. I want to ask you like, why did you want to do that, and more importantly, how did it go for you?
Gina: Okay, so my first set of students who did the detox, so many of them wanted to do it that there weren’t any leftover flip phones for me to use, so I did not do it with my students, which the purpose of this was for the kids to experience, so I was happy to bow out, but then I broke my phone a couple weeks ago, and I just decided I wasn’t going to stop everything I was doing. I was not going to stop living my life to go fix this phone. Plus, after doing all of this, I have a little bit of … Anger is not the right word, but frustration with tech companies. You know?
Tim: Yeah. Yeah.
Gina: I didn’t want to run and fork over hundreds and hundreds of dollars for this device that they’ve addicted me to, so I dug my heels in the sand, and I said, “I’m going to live life without a cell phone,” and I did. It was interesting. I slept better at night. I didn’t have a phone next to my bed, because my phone didn’t work anyway. I mean, there was nothing valuable that my phone was going to do for me, so my sleep was better. I was more relaxed.
I, at a certain point, I’m not going to take my laptop with me everywhere I go, so I didn’t have to check everything constantly. I was not refreshing anything, and the only time that I checked social media was when my computer was open, and it was convenient, and I wasn’t doing anything, because like I said, to be sitting with my laptop, I had to be somewhere where I was in that zone anyway. Admitted, I sometimes check my email when I’m sitting at red lights. That’s awful. I didn’t do that for 12 days, and so the conversations with my children in the car were far better, because I didn’t stop. We just talked from point A to point B.
The one thing or the couple things that were difficult were the communication parts. We have four kids. We get a lot of help from our little village with getting kids from their ball practices, and picking them up from school, and everybody communicates with cell phones now. Thankfully, I had some other moms who went to some extraordinary lengths to communicate with me, and that was much appreciated, but I will say that it’s nice to have a phone for the convenience factor, but I think that I’m going to do a better job of not using my phone at night. I don’t need it at night, and I don’t need to check email at red lights. All of that can wait. We’re in this, we feel like we need to respond instantly and always be on top of things, and it has created a very stressful situation and environment for all of us that’s probably unnecessary.
Tim: Yeah. I think that’s really well said. Just kind of speaking of your kids, if you don’t mind talking about that, you said you have four kids. Do they have phones already, or are you, like me, are you trying to resist that for a little while? When do you think they’re going to get them, or I guess we want to talk big picture too, like when do you think kids should have a phone? You teach middle school. Should kids have a phone at that age? Do you think it’s different for everybody? What would your recommendation be?
Gina: I will talk about my own children first. My husband is also an educator, and he also sees the big problems that come along with kids on social media and phones, so we are very much in agreement that our kids will not have phones for a long time, especially smartphones. Now, my oldest is nine, and she asked, starting probably from the time she was seven and eight, because some of her friends and maybe some of her cousins had phones. We would come home, and she would say, “So-and-so and so-and-so,” and Jeremy and I would laugh, and we would say, “We don’t care. We don’t care who has one. We don’t want you to have one.” She has stopped asking for an iPhone or an iPod or anything like that, and we have told her, “We will give you a phone that you need when you need it.”
Her first phone will be one that probably texts and calls, and that’ll be when she’s probably waiting longer for us or going to different practices further away or things like that, but right now, we’re with her almost all the time, or she’s with a friend’s parent who we can communicate with. She doesn’t need one right now, but we have said when she needs one, we’ll give her one, but I’m not sure there’s an age that’s right for all kids. What I would say is, I mean, truly, this might sound silly, but I think when kids are comfortable with their own identity. The reason I say that is because kids are bombarded with images of perfection on social media, and this is a really scary time for teenagers to compare how they see themselves to these perfect images or these perfect lives that people spend hours and days creating, and they don’t know that that’s not real. I want my own children to be okay with who they are before they start comparing themselves to that, and I don’t know.
It might be a different age for my daughter than it is for my sons, but if I have any, any hesitation that it will negatively impact their self-confidence or their self-image, their self-esteem, any of that, I just think it’s like handing a kid poison, and it’s really, really hard. I mean, I spend my days talking to girls about these issues, and it’s really hard to recover from. I remember how I felt when I was 13. I mean, you compare yourself to everybody anyway, but when you don’t compare yourself to reality and you compare yourself to perfection, of course you feel awful about yourself, and then ushers in the anxiety, the depression, and, I mean, sadly, suicide. I mean, the numbers are increasing, and we can’t deny it.
I don’t want to subject my kids to that in the name of so many parents have given their kids phone because they’ll be safer, they’ll always know where they’re at, they’ll always be able to communicate with them. I’m just going to choose to do that in a different way.
Tim: Wow. That’s really well said, and I think, yeah, the best way for us to think about, because a lot of teachers are old enough that they don’t understand that world quite as much, and I think the best way to think about it is just imagine yourself 20, 30 years ago when you’re in middle school, and think about how difficult that is. Then imagine all of these images like you’re talking about, all of these unobtainable goals just being bombarded on you every day, just piling on top of those issues that you’re already dealing with. Like you said, it causes problems that are very, very difficult to deal with.
Gina: I remember my middle school years, and I remember them well, and if I could erase two years of my life, it would be those. They are such a difficult time.
Gina: I mean, you’re just searching so … You’re trying to make sense of life, and yourself, and who you want to be, and, man, it’s rough. I am so glad I did not grow up with this. I grew up surrounded by real people, and I feel that’s another thing I talk to kids a lot about, especially the kids who did the digital detox, is developing real relationships, because a lot of times, online relationships, it’s so easy to say things, but if you don’t see the facial expressions, if the actions don’t match the words, those aren’t real friendships. Those aren’t, and they’re growing up thinking they’re real, because that’s how they’re making friends. I would, I just encourage them to spend real time with real people, because that’s where your real friendships will come through.
Tim: Yeah, absolutely, and I guess that idea of kind of connecting in real life kind of leads me into my next question to kind of wrap it up. If kids don’t have their devices, if they’re more focused on real life, are there things that they’re missing out on by not having a phone, by not having a device? I guess part two of that is, do you think kids are going to be better off or worse off if they don’t have those devices?
Gina: It’s hard to go either way on that, because it all comes down to balance and healthy boundaries. Some of the things that my kids reported doing during the week that they gave up their phone is, they had real conversations with their family at dinner. One family went out for dinner at IHOP, and they sat for three hours and talked. That must have meant something, because he wouldn’t have talked about it if that was the norm. One girl said that she went and took a babysitting class, like she had always thought about it but just never really did it, and she went and got certified, CPR, babysitting class. Another girl talked about going to the library with her dad. These are all things that we probably all did as kids, but they weren’t remarkable, because they were normal. Now, that’s abnormal to do those things. So many kids talked about being outside more.
I think it’s so easy, and I am guilty of this. I will pick up my phone to check something, and I’ll say, “I have five minutes before I have to do this,” and before I know it, I have spent an hour endlessly checking something, or one link takes me to another. That’s what these kids have done, and so they went outside. One kid talked about playing with his neighbors. When people talk to me about this, they’ll say like, “We don’t see kids playing outside anymore.” One kid talked about having an outlet out on the porch so they could still do their thing, but I guess at least they’re outside.
Kids being better off, I’m not going to take a hard stance on either-or. I just think that we need to do a better job of helping kids realize that these cool machines that they really like are messing with their brains and their bodies, and they are addiction. I think that technology addiction will soon be classified at the same level as drug addiction, alcohol addiction. In Asia, they treat it with more intensity than those other addictions, because they are finding that people are so, so addicted. I don’t want to go down that road. I don’t, and I talk to the kids about … I know I’m getting off track here a little bit with your question-
Tim: No, no. This is good.
Gina: … but I’ve told the kids about smoking. In the beginning, smoking, early in the, whatever, 1920s, 1930s, smoking was really, really cool, and it was really popular, and it was sold as … It was a weight loss, I don’t, tool, and people bought into it. It was decades before slowly and surely all of this research came out that smoking is really unhealthy, and it took forever for people to realize this. I said, “This is exactly what cell phones are.” Like they came out, and they were all the rage, and they were so super cool, and they’re supposed to make your life better, and easy, and more efficient, and you can communicate and connect with people.
Within five years, we’ve realized that there are some pretty negative consequences of it, and I don’t want these kids to be the lab rats. I don’t want them to be 20 years in and realize that they were created as an addiction, and they have to fight really hard to break the addiction, where if you just realize that they’re a helpful tool, but you keep your distance when it starts taking over your life, then that’s all it is. It’s a helpful tool. I just, I don’t want to see kids with the negative impact because of these devices. I mean, kids should be happy, and their phones are making them unhappy. That’s what the research is saying. Healthy boundaries. That’s my mantra. Healthy boundaries.
Tim: No, I think that’s really well said, and I appreciate your passion for this. I think it is really important to let kids know, like help them realize there’s a real world out there beyond their phones, and so hopefully as educators, we can move toward that, and we can help kids realize that. We’ll go ahead and wrap it up. Thank you, Gina. Thank you so much for giving me some time and chatting with me today.
Gina: Thanks for having me.
Tim: Gina said that her students spent more time outside, more time with hobbies, more time interacting with people, and even catching up on their late work at school, all why their phones were put away, and all of those things are beneficial. Just thinking about how this applies to the art room, I think a little bit of time away from technology might actually help develop a little more creativity in our kids. Yeah, there’s inspiration everywhere if you have technology, and you can access that inspiration, but you need to ask yourself, where do your best ideas comes from? Where do your kids’ best ideas come from? Because all of mine and most of my students’ come from their own mind, their own imagination. If we encourage them to put away their phones for a little while, okay, we can give them the time to think, time to come up with new ideas. I’ve been a proponent for cell phones in the art room. I think they can do a lot, but I’ve always said that it needs to be done within limits.
I think one limit we can set is to just have kids put their devices away, and we can give them time every day with nothing else going on, when their creativity and their ideas can flourish, because it seems to me that kids don’t have that opportunity hardly ever. I think we need to ask that question. How much do phones take away kids’ opportunity to sit, and think, and create, and focus? If you think that the devices and that smartphones are a problem, maybe consider a digital detox. It may be short. It’s going to be temporary, but your kids may be more interested in it than you think, and maybe, just maybe, you could consider it for yourself as well.
Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education, with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. New episodes are here every Tuesday, and you can find them all at artedradio.com. Now, before we go, I wanted to tell you about AOE courses, because we have had a plethora of questions coming in about them. Whether you need courses for PD hours, or grad credit, or moving over on the pay scale, make sure you check out theartofed.com under the Courses tab. We have over 20 different online courses, so you should be able to find whatever you need, like right now I’m teaching a studio painting course, as well as a course on instructional strategies for the art room. It’s a really good balance between creating some personal artwork and focusing on professional practice. Okay, but new sections of every course, no matter what your needs are, will be beginning on July 1st and again on August 1st. One more time, check it out at theartofed.com/courses. Thank you, as always, for listening, and we will talk to you next week.
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