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No phone for 40 days!

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In these modern times, it is unimaginable for children and adults to be without a cell phone. But learners at Holy Rosary School in Edenvale, Johannesburg, took part in an experiment to be without their smartphones for 40 days. And these were their findings, writes school principal Natalie Meerholz.

Having been involved in girls’ education for numerous years, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the mental well-being of the children under my care. My observations of their smartphone usage indicate unhealthy habits and negative behaviour. 

Listening to parents’ frustrations about managing these devices and their worries regarding their daughters’ disengagement due to excessive screen time, I felt compelled to mobilise our school into action. So, the Smart Age for Smart Phone campaign was launched—calling for the delay of smartphone ownership in primary school children—and started with a voluntary 40-day social media and phone-free challenge.

Armed with findings on school smartphone usage, I engaged the parent body. I presented research highlighting the potential negative impact of early smartphone ownership on young girls’ mental health in their teenage years. The response was overwhelming, emphasising the importance of parental support for the project’s success. Since our primary school already advocates for no smartphones at school, the challenge lay in extending this policy to home.

The disruption that followed was intense, and our girls weren’t happy. Thankfully, the uptake was unexpectedly high, with 76% of the Gr 4-7s pledging to participate. Many girls were scared to give up their smartphones. Some worried their ‘snap streaks’ would end and that they’d be left out of social dynamics within friendship groups.

During the 40 days, some girls journaled their experiences, and certain parents answered weekly questions about their children, sharing reflections on their phone-related pledges. Girls were supported at break time, where they could meet and share their feelings and frustrations.

The most significant theme to emerge initially was boredom – our girls didn’t know what to do with their time. Parents found this difficult to manage. By the end of the period, girls reported that they’d discovered new hobbies, reading more, being more engaged with family, sleeping better, being less irritable, and being happier. Some reported that they didn’t miss the “social media drama” on WhatsApp.

With the 40-day goal reached, 44% of girls completed the challenge without accessing their devices at all. A total of 28% stuck to it most of the time, with some cheat days, while over 5% couldn’t meet the challenge; 23% of those who pledged don’t own phones but wanted to support their friends.

We need to get our pupils off phones and into the world, and our initiative is just the start of this process.

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