Can they unplug? A US school principal will pay students to forgo screen time

Ms Diana Smith will pay her students $100 each if they forgo electronics and video screens every Tuesday until school resumes at the end of August.
Ms Diana Smith will pay her students $100 each if they forgo electronics and video screens every Tuesday until school resumes at the end of August. PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - With the school year over, countless students will binge on movies, television and video games during their summer break. Many will also have endless access to cellphones that would be off-limits if they were in class.

One educator in the nation's capital wants to curb the tech deluge.

Ms Diana Smith, principal at Washington Latin Public Charter School, pledged to pay her students $100 each out of her own pocket if they forgo electronics and video screens each Tuesday until school resumes at the end of August.

"I don't like when teachers bribe their students with food, so I am breaking my own rules," Ms Smith said in an interview. "But I do think they need help with this particular relationship."

Ms Smith, who has led the D.C. charter school since 2008, is concerned that teenagers are addicted to their phones. They are losing sleep because they are texting in the middle of the night. Social media has intensified middle and high school drama.

"I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the ubiquity of the phones in their lives," she said.

Latin enrolls students from fifth to 12th grade. During the middle school's summer send-off assembly last Thursday (June 8), Ms Smith told her seventh- and eighth-grade students (and their parents) about her pledge. The parents cheered, she said. Some also heard grumbling as students realised what it would take to earn a Benjamin.

That's 11 whole days of no phones, computers, tablets, video games or television. If the students are not at home, they'll have to figure out how to contact their parents. At the end of the summer, two adults over the age of 21 will have to send a letter to Smith certifying that Tuesdays were tech-free.


Summer poses a challenge for many educators who worry students will backslide because they are not regularly reading, writing and solving math problems. Ms Smith is more worried that students will spend too much time buried in their screens, instead of activities such as playing basketball with friends or going to a museum.

The concern is so grave that Ms Smith placed a jar on her desk at home in February and started setting aside cash. So far, she has stashed $600. She might have to start saving more.

Latin enrolled 180 seventh- and eighth-graders in the past school year, but only those returning in August are eligible. Ms Smith estimates that's 160 kids, which means theoretically she could be out $16,000.

But she doesn't think it'll cost her that much."I think only 50 of them can do it," Ms Smith said. "I have seen kids who can't go an hour without touching a phone."

Miles Tiller, 13, said he can do it. The eighth-grader said he doesn't obsess over his cellphone. He does, however, play video games regularly. He even built a computer from scratch to optimise his gaming power.

But he says he can turn the games off on Tuesdays. "It's just one day," he said. "I just need to have a set thing to do that day."

His mother, Christine O'Reilly, said that after the assembly, parents immediately started taking bets on which of their children could switch off their devices. She said she already sets limits on Miles's tech use. When he goes to bed, he's not allowed to take his phone with him. The computer is in the kitchen.

"I think it will be a good challenge," she said. "It'll be a good thing to see what effect it will have."

Ms O'Reilly wants to take things a bit further, suggesting there should be a parent-student pact to shut the devices off. After all, it's not just the teenagers who struggle to look away from their screens to enjoy the summer sun.