Ban Smartphones in School? Why Not Just Disable Apps, Startup Says

Nov 05, 2019

France has banned them outright. Ontario restricts their use in all but a handful of cases. And in some places, they’re locked up in pouches to keep them out of kids’ hands.

The contraband in question? Smartphones, of course—or more specifically, smartphones in schools.

Once part of burgeoning “Bring Your Own Device” movements, the use of phones—and the accompanying array of digital distractions—has begun to sour among educators and administrators tired of waging battle with students over their unordained use.

Currently, legislation similar to Ontario’s is wending its way through legislatures in a handful of states. Yet it often faces facing steep resistance from parents, who support tucking phones away in class, but want to keep an open line of communication in case of emergencies.

Thus, the latest shot across the bow might seem an obvious solution: Disable distracting apps while leaving texts and calls unrestricted. That’s the premise behind a new feature, called School Time, from the parental control app Goya-Move.

The premise is simple: Parents sync their devices with their child’s and set the hours of the day that kids are at school. A VPN, or virtual private network, then blocks the apps during that time, locking out chief distractors like Snapchat, Instagram and even web browsers. Kids can resume using apps as they wish after the set hour has passed.

“The best part about this is the child doesn’t feel punished,” insists co-founder Isaac Gredinberg. “You’re not taking the phone away saying, ‘You can’t.’ We’re teaching kids about screen time moderation and accountability.”

Goya, an acronym for “Get Off Your Apps,” was founded by Gredinberg and Keri Mackey, who created the app out of their San Jose, Calif., home to manage the digital habits of their six kids. Originally, the app was designed to block apps until kids had met a daily activity goal, measured as steps on a phone’s pedometer. More recently, it’s added a feature that lets parents assign their children a list of chores that must be ticked off to unlock full access, which has proved quite popular, according to internal metrics. (Gredinberg stresses that data collection is minimal and anonymized.)

So far the app is exclusive to parents and has racked up about 40,000 downloads from families. While the School Time app blocking feature is free, step counting and chores functions require a monthly subscription fee, ranging in price from $2 to $5 depending on how many kids’ devices are added to the plan.

While no schools have institutionalized its use—and such developments might be a long way off, its founders acknowledge—it has been suggested by administors as a viable solution at the school Gredinberg and Mackey’s children attend. And the app claims none other than the National PTA as a partner, having teamed up last year to offer small grants to a handful of schools to host physical fitness events.

“The kids can’t trick the system,” says Kristi Dees, an instructional assistant for children with special needs for the Mountain View-Whisman School District in California, who advised Gredinberg and Mackey on working with local PTAs. “If my kids were younger I would have done it 24/7.”

Dees had, in fact, tried using the app to encourage physical activity when her son got his first phone. That effort didn’t last more than a day or two. “He never carried his phone with him,” she says. Her son’s digital distraction of choice, she adds, is primarily watching YouTube videos on a laptop—making it difficult to use screen time on his phone as an incentive to exercise. Likewise, kids who mainly text with friends may not find much reason to change their behavior.

For the right kid, however, the app could prove more successful. Using rewards to motivate positive behavior is something Dees often sees in her own work. “For kids who want to play games or go on Instagram, it’s great,” she says. “That’s what we do with some of these kids who have behavior problems. It’s literally, ‘What are you working for?’”

The ultimate goal is to set limits for kids at a time when learning healthy habits can be challenging, its founders say. But it’s also designed to restore to parents some peace of mind robbed by technology’s outsized influence in our lives.

“I think that cell phones and tech have come at us so quickly that parents didn’t really have a chance to think about it and prepare,” says Mackey. “We’re hoping that the Goya Move app is moving parents to a place where they can start to be proactive with technology.”


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