MWHS students look at teen cell phone addiction

By Becca Neuger

Most people probably don’t need statistics to convince them that today’s teens have become increasingly reliant on their mobile devices, but the numbers are nonetheless startling.
According to research put out in 2013 by the Pew Research Center, 78 percent of American teenagers have cell phones and the average teen spends 6-8 hours per day on their phone. On a daily basis, the average teen checks their phone over 50 times and sends 67 texts, which doesn’t include communication via Snapchat, Facebook or other social messaging apps. Furthermore, 60 percent of teens report feeling anxious without their phones, and 86 percent of phone-owning teens sleep with their devices right next to them.
From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Saturday this school year, Mound Westonka High School ninth-grader Robby Brustad and eighth-graders Michael Kurtz and Carson Meritt have been meeting with advisor Julie Taintor to work on a project focused on minimizing their community’s disproportionate reliance on technology. The three students have taken a hard look at their own phone habits and have made changes to be more present in their daily social interactions. They are now challenging their peers to follow suit with a Community Problem Solving project called “B-Present.”
Community Problem Solving is a component of the Future Problem Solving Program International. The trio will be bringing their project to the state competition on March 25, with the goal of advancing to the Internationals this summer.
Although they see phone addiction as a clear problem in their school and community, the three boys are quick to note that they are not “anti-phone.” Kurtz and Merrit both got their first cell phones in fifth grade, and all three use their phones frequently throughout the day. When Kurtz used the Moment app to track his smart phone usage, he found out that he’s just as phone reliant as many of his peers.
“I averaged about four hours a day on my phone, with some days closer to two and one day at almost seven hours,” Kurtz said.
“One day we looked at Michael’s phone and he had spent 4 hours and 55 minutes just on Snapchat,” Meritt said.
To better understand the benefits and challenges of reducing phone use, the boys went through a simulation of what it would be like to be completely phone free. They put their phones away for a week and noticed how it changed their day-to-day tasks and interactions. Although they said they felt bored at times without their phones, the experience was overall a positive one.
Brustad said, “I’ve been getting ahead on homework and I notice socially that I can talk to people better and, it’s weird, but I’ve been actually been sleeping better.”
“I also slept better,” Kurtz said. “It was amazing.”
The students said that they also found themselves being more productive without their phones, which matched what their research showed. Kurtz explained that they found that it takes up to 50 percent more time to study when you have your phone nearby and you make up to 50 percent more errors.
Research also shows that addiction to phones and other devices can lead to anxiety, behavioral problems, distraction in school, repetitive stress injury and sleep deprivation. A majority of teens say they feel the need to immediately respond to texts and social networking messages, a phenomenon commonly referred to as FOMO or Fear of Missing Out.
A cell phone use survey that Brustad, Kurtz and Meritt conducted shows a similar trend among Westonka students, which is why the team decided to launch an education effort on the consequences of phone addiction. By encouraging their peers to be more mindful of their phone use, the students hope Westonka students will be better prepared to communicate in person in their relationships.

Brustad, Kurtz and Meritt decided to dedicate February 27-March 3 as B-Present Week at MWHS. Kurtz went on the morning announcements to share some facts about cell phone addiction and to tell his classmates about the B-Present project.
During lunch, the student body had the opportunity to sign the “B-Present present,” pledging that they would try to be more present in their relationships and more mindful of their technology use. The pledge also challenged students to be off their phones between seventh and eighth hour on Thursday and during lunch and the student prep period on Friday.
The week before, Kurtz, Meritt and Brustad went to Grandview Middle School to give an all-school presentation about the effects of phone addiction. Over 200 Grandview students pledged to “B-Present” and at least that many pledged at the high school, according to Meritt.
As part of their education efforts, the team shared some simple ideas for reducing phone reliance, including:
– Powering off your phone or putting it on Do Not Disturb when it’s not needed,
– Scheduling a certain time and place for you to be on your phone in school,
– Avoiding bringing your phone to the dinner table to better engage in meaningful conversation with your family members and friends,
– Turning your phone on silent when talking face-to-face with a friend,
– Tracking your phone usage with an app like Break Free or Moment,
– Turning off notifications for text messages and email,
– Setting time limits for social media, and
– Turning your phone completely off at night or putting it on silent.

Last year, Kurtz and Meritt qualified for FPS Internationals for a Community Problem Solving project on teen homelessness called Project C.A.R.E. After the competition was over, the boys said they found it difficult to keep the project going in the community. Kurtz has continued some activities through his church but said it was hard to keep momentum in school as the boys transitioned from Grandview to the high school.
Brustad, Kurtz and Meritt are hoping to change this with B-Present. They have already met with MWHS Principal Mark McIlmoyle and Assistant Principal Marty Fischer about ways to make the project sustainable at the high school. During the 2017-2018 school year, the team will lead monthly digital citizenship efforts to keep B-Present alive.
The state Future Problem Solving competition will be held March 25 at Apollo High School in St. Cloud. The state competition involves a six-page report and six-page addendum, Skype interviews, a scrapbook, a display board and a media presentation. If the team moves on to internationals, they will compete June 7-11 in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.