January Rapp Up

Let’s talk about smartphones.

Two years ago, the spring semester before I became principal, we talked about the use of cell phones in our building. We had a policy of “Off and in the locker,” but in actuality we knew most students had their cell phones on them most of the time, and enforcement of the policy was very inconsistent. As I’ve said before, I want to do what we say we’re going to do, and if we’re not then we need to either change what we do or change what we say. For this, we started by listening.

I held two separate listening sessions with an open invitation to any of that year’s junior class to give feedback and input on what our future policy should be. Both sessions had between 30 and 50 juniors come, and boy were they passionate that they needed their phones! Some of the reasons were legitimate: phones were needed for coordinating rides and carpools, for letting parents know their lunch account was empty, or for putting appointments and reminders into their calendars. Others were points of contention; for instance, students insisted they needed their phones in case of an emergency, while I shared that during a lockdown that year, students flooding parents with texts actually created problems with cell service for the administration trying to coordinate with each other.

Ultimately, I think we landed in a place that gives room for the legitimate use of phones while still addressing our concerns, which I will get to in a minute. Things have been better since students have been allowed to check their phones at their lockers during passing periods.

One thread of those conversations, however, has stuck with me more than anything else from those discussions. One student said, “Mine is turned off, but I keep it in my computer bag. I don’t see what’s wrong with that.” Many heads nodded. To which I asked, “Well, if it’s off and you aren’t using it, why don’t you just keep it in your locker?” The reply?

“I just like to have it near me.”

This, in my opinion, is the heart of the problem.
For Catholics, when we develop an unhealthy emotional or psychological dependence on someone or something, we would say we have a “disordered attachment” to that person or thing, that we are spiritually “enslaved” and that our freedom to choose is impinged upon. Think of the Ring of Power in The Lord of the Rings; everyone around it just wants to have it, and its very presence changes the way the person feels and acts. A more familiar term that communicates much the same thing is “addiction.” Addiction is not just about drugs or alcohol; we can be addicts to pretty much anything.

This relationship to phones is not just a St. James phenomenon, of course. Check out this NPR article on what a public school tried and how their students reacted to the issue.

Lest you think I am reading into this too much, be assured that this attachment is completely intentional on the part of the companies making these products. They WANT us to be addicted to our devices, and THEY INTENTIONALLY ENGINEER the products to produce this effect. Here’s a quote from a segment of “60 Minutes”:

“Have you ever wondered if all those people you see staring intently at their smartphones — nearly everywhere, and at all times — are addicted to them? According to a former Google product manager, you are about to hear from, Silicon Valley is engineering your phone, apps and social media to get you hooked. As we first reported in April, he is one of the few tech insiders to publicly acknowledge that the companies responsible for programming your phones are working hard to get you and your family to feel the need to check in constantly. Some programmers call it ‘brain hacking’ and the tech world would probably prefer you didn’t hear about it.”

In addition to confessions from the industry and our own experiences here at St. James, surveys show that kids and parents both are often willing to identify themselves as addicts.

I shared this with our students this year, and I also shared with them my own struggle with my phone. I will be the first to admit that having a smartphone has made me a better husband, father, and friend because, thanks to constant access to iCal, email, and the SJA app, I am more organized and dependable than ever before. But I also found myself checking scores, reading articles, and looking up information when I should have been having conversations or just simply being completely present to my wife and kids. These aren’t bad things in themselves; I just simply didn’t have the ability to ignore those programs every time I should. So, for me, I had to get rid of them. I had to disable the internet browsers and limit app access for my own good and the good of my relationships.

Again, phones are not the enemy! Sin is. The devil is. But we do need to be aware of the power of these devices, not only in what they are capable of doing for us, but of what they are capable of doing to us. I am not a parent of teenagers, so I refer you to each other! Talk about what works in helping your children have healthy use of technology, or even what hasn’t worked, and if we here at St. James can be of any service in this area, be sure to let us know!

Your brother in Christ,