Without cell phones, social connections thrive at Pilgrim School

| May 30, 2024 | 0 Comments

ZAIN IJAZ shows off his pouch while in the school library.

As the school year comes to a close, the Larchmont Chronicle checked in with Patricia Kong, head of Pilgrim School, to see how her bold “no cell phones” policy changed the 2023-24 year for students and teachers at the 66-year-old private school located on the campus of First Congregational Church at Commonwealth Avenue and Sixth Street. The Chronicle’s initial story about the policy for Pilgrim’s 6th to 12th grade students ran in our September 2023 issue.

Like many teachers and school leaders around the country, Kong had noticed drastic changes in how students with cell phones interacted with one another during the school day.

On his tour of colleges, the U.S. Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, said students came up to him and said, “We don’t have a culture anymore of speaking to each other.” Kong knew that removing cell phones from the school environment was necessary, but she believed there would be resistance.

At Pilgrim, although a few students thanked her for making the change when it was announced in May of 2023, a majority of students were not happy about the decision when it was implemented.

Through Yondr, a company that aims to “carve out places where real connection, focus and creativity can flourish,” Pilgrim purchased a $25 pouch for each of the 200 students at the school. Every morning, teachers check to ensure students have locked their phones in the pouch. They remain inaccessible, though in the child’s possession, from 9 a.m. until 3:40 p.m., when children can unlock their pouches by tapping them on a special unit before leaving school. 

JOSEPH LIM stands outside with his pouch.

A key part of the process was making sure all teachers were checking to make sure phones were in the pouches, Kong told us. At first, some students would resist or say they hadn’t brought their phones. One student had brought an extra “fake” phone to put in the pouch. “I’m telling you, they try everything and anything until it becomes the norm. Now kids will tell me they don’t think about it anymore because they know they’re not allowed to use the phone,” Kong said.

So what changes has Kong seen? Last year, no one was talking to each other. “It was quiet in the hallways and at lunch.” During their free periods, students would sit silently on the hallway floor with their heads in their phones. This year, without access to their phones, the resumption of talking — in line while waiting for food, eating in the cafeteria, and during breaks and play time — took a few weeks because everyone was used to sitting with cell phones in hand.

“Now, it’s so loud!” and Kong has to remind students to walk in the hallways because they are chasing each other, playing tag and talking to each other. “In the beginning it was weird to see 6-foot-tall middle schoolers running around. Even I had become accustomed to people that big not playing.”

At first it seemed the students’ bodies didn’t know what to do, but then, “naturally and organically — because of curiosity and boredom — they’d go, ‘OK, let’s figure out what game we’re going to play,’” she said. Simple social stuff came back.

The younger students now invent different games or come to Kong’s office asking for more pens or paper. At first, some students needed help coming up with a plan for figuring out where and when to meet up. They had been relying on texting to make these plans. Without that tool, students had trouble knowing how to find each other.

HANGING OUT on the field are (left to right) Hank Reberger, Dante Vinson, Noah Polikowski, Charlie Armstrong, Lucas Putman and Felix Cordero.

Now, high schoolers hang out on the field or in the cafeteria to talk or work together. Both the gym and the field are busy during flex period with boys and girls playing soccer, basketball and volleyball. Older students who don’t want to hang out with friends make appointments to see teachers to talk about work, projects or activities.

Kong even sees the policy making a difference outside of school. “I think they are now hanging out more outside of school. Some kids still play online,” but in-person meet-ups and sleepovers are coming back, she said.

Kong knows schools can’t control what goes on at home, but she believes more parameters need to be set. She and many others around the country are aware of the correlation between social media and cell phones and anxiety, depression and loneliness.

Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, director of Oxford University’s Wellbeing Research Centre, who has been assessing the figures for the recently released World Happiness Report, has noted significant declines in happiness in areas of the world where social media and cell-phone usage is highest. His advice to parents and to young people is to work to reestablish a culture of actual in-person connection, as well-being science shows this to be a huge component of overall wellness.

Though Pilgrim is the first independent school in Los Angeles to implement usage of Yondr pouches, schools in the area have heard about Kong’s new policy and have reached out, interested in adopting similar policies. “It takes a lot of courage,” Kong said. Teenagers hate it at first, but she believes they ultimately want and need it.  She truly believes parents need to demand this of their schools, and the idea does seem to be catching on. According to Yondr’s website, one million students in 21 countries are now using their products. 

Kong says that she has thought a lot about whether the pouches could be used in all LAUSD schools. She believes it would come down to a consistent effort from adults. “The choice might come down to fighting about putting the cell phone in the pouch or teaching. And, though Yondr isn’t expensive — breaking down to $25 per year for each student — there are a lot of students in LAUSD.”

Would Kong herself take the leap again? “Yes. Absolutely I would do it again,” she said. “It is a gift to the kids. A gift of time; a gift of being together.”

To talk with Kong further about the program, email her at pkong@pilgrim-school.org. To learn more about Yondr, visit overyondr.com.

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