Bill eliminating smart devices in Vermont schools hopes to improve student health — but education leaders aren’t so sure

People using cellphones. Photo courtesy of Federal Bureau of Investigations

The bill would dramatically limit the use of electronic devices, digital platforms and more in all Vermont schools.

by Holly Sullivan, Community News Service Laura Derriendinger wants to protect Vermont children from social media, or as she defined it to Senate education committee members Jan. 26, “a toxic rabbit hole.”

“There are class-action lawsuits against social media companies on behalf of parents whose children have died because of direct product exposure to these different social medias,” said Derriendinger, a mother and nurse who serves as a planning commissioner and town health officer in Middletown Springs. “While these products have become a norm, what the science is telling us now is that it’s not a safe or a healthy norm, especially for our children.”

Derriendinger, along with other Rutland-area citizens, recently approached Sen. Terry Williams, R-Rutland, asking for a bill limiting digital technology in schools. 

The result: Williams and other legislators introduced S.284, which would dramatically limit the use of electronic devices, digital platforms and more in all Vermont schools. The bill has drawn testimony across several committee meetings in recent weeks, including from high-profile voices such as Vermont Attorney General Charity Clark.

If passed, the bill would require schools to create policies banning student use of personal smart devices and cellphones, prohibit teachers and school officials from using social media in lessons or for announcements and allow students to opt out of using electronic devices, the internet and more. 

The latter policies would be developed by districts and require schools to provide students alternative activities or instruction methods.   

“They’re an amazing group of young women,” Williams explained in an interview. “Basically, one of them homeschools her children. And I said, ‘So, what’s your ask? Why do you want me to do this?’ (She said), ‘Because I’m homeschooling my children. I’d really like to get them back in the school, but I’m concerned about the presence of electronic devices in school.’”

The legislation, Williams told Community News Service, “aims to improve the environments of schools, to promote mental health and wellness.”

S.284 would require all Vermont schools to create policies prohibiting students from accessing their electronic devices during the school day. A policy might prohibit students from bringing those devices entirely, require students to keep them in a designated spot or involve putting the devices in lockers or a sealed pouch, legislative counsel Beth St. James told Senate education committee members Jan. 26.

Sen. David Weeks, R-Rutland, another of the bill’s sponsors, clarified that S.284 has exemptions for students who use their smart devices for medical purposes. “One example of a medical exemption, a student may have a diabetes monitoring app on their phone,” Weeks said via email. 

S.284 also gives the option to opt out of technology use in school entirely. 

The bill would require all classrooms to have non-digital learning options for their students. If a school failed to provide those accommodations — even if it would mean trying to replicate a YouTube video on paper — the school could be sued under the legislation.

Several of the proposed restrictions spurred debate, though most people testifying in committee meetings agreed with the bill’s focus on better protecting children’s data privacy.

Speaking before the committee Feb. 2, Clark, the state attorney general, said she is “supportive of the work on this bill and this bill generally.”

Clark, who said she is well-informed on social media from her office’s investigative work, detailed components of social media that can distort young people’s mental health, such as the “infinite scroll” of app feeds, “excessive push notifications” and “like counts.”

To illustrate her concerns regarding social media’s impact on wellness, Clark outlined a hypothetical: a child struggling with an eating disorder seeking out content that exacerbates their illness. 

“(The algorithm) doesn’t pass a moral judgment or a health judgment on (the question of), ‘This might not be good for you,’” she told committee members. “It just keeps showing that person the very thing that they probably shouldn’t be looking at because that’s the thing they keep obsessively looking at.”

Jay Nichols, executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association, says he understands the negative impact of social media on young minds. As he put it Feb. 2, the association is “on the front line of the negative impacts of digital addiction to social media.” However, he said it does not support S.284. 

“Already, most schools have social media and cell phone access completely or significantly restricted during the school day,” he said. “Providing the mental health resources that students need when they need them is probably a better approach to addressing mental health needs in students than banning cell phones and social media from schools from our perspective.”

Nichols called the opt-out element of the bill unreasonable. He told committee members that providing paper copies of digital materials is “a huge burden to schools and is not necessary,” saying later that “it’s not appropriate to allow students to simply opt out of learning how to use technology in today’s world.”

Though the principals’ association supports the protection of children’s data and privacy, Nichols does not believe that this is the bill to do it, he said. 

“To ban (online resources) would only hurt the progress of students who will be looking for jobs and pursuing higher education in our increasingly digital world,” he said.

The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.

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