Forty Days Without Cell Phones

A bold and disruptive initiative that aims to restore the benefits of a play-based childhood

Research on psychosocial trends in social media consistently shows that minors are increasingly vulnerable to negative effects linked to social media consumption and excessive time spent on smartphones. These effects can include heightened levels of loneliness, anxiety, and depression, as well as a greater susceptibility to cyberbullying and exposure to inappropriate content.

Such findings underscore the need for interventions and regulatory measures aimed at safeguarding the mental health and wellbeing of minors in the digital era. Cognisant of the emerging research on the link between smartphone usage and mental health issues, particularly in young girls, Holy Rosary School initiated an investigation into the topic.

The school takes pride in fostering not only a robust academic curriculum but also a concealed one – which profoundly influences students’ attitudes, beliefs, behaviours, and mental well-being, often shaping their perceptions of themselves, others, and the world around them.

The research conducted within the broader school community revealed that smartphone ownership among primary school students was high, with 98 percent of Grade 7 pupils, owning their own device. There was also a notable increase in usage among Grade 4 learners.

Parental observations included comments on their daughters’ disengagement at home, noting constant distractions caused by their smartphones. While voicing concerns about the dangers associated with smartphone usage, parents were unsure how to address and reduce this usage.

Within school, teachers expressed frustration over social media disruptions, which occasionally impacted classroom dynamics. In discussions, pupils admitted feeling addicted to certain apps and games, acknowledging they spent excessive and unnecessary hours on their phones.

Recognising all the ‘red flags’ regarding smartphone usage and behaviour, along with the growing trend of younger children accessing age-restricted platforms, the school decided to respond. Committed to driving the hidden curriculum, Holy Rosary initiated a voluntary, phone-free 40-day challenge that encouraged Grade 1 – 7 pupils to abstain from using their smart phones from 14 February to 31 March (Lent).

Throughout this period, participating students were challenged with keeping their phones completely powered off and abstaining from any social media activity. Since the primary school already advocates for no smartphones at school, the challenge lay in extending this policy to home.

Holy Rosary pupils display their no cellphones certificates

Bold and disruptive initiative

This initiative was a bold and disruptive first step in a far bigger campaign the school is driving – Smart Age for Smartphone. The campaign calls for the delay of smartphone ownership by children in a bid to restore a play-based childhood and to protect the mental health and well-being of its learners. The girls were initially unhappy but, with plenty of encouragement, the uptake was unexpectedly high with 76 percent (or 129) of the Grade 4 – 7 learners pledging to participate.

With the 40-day goal reached, the school reported that 44 percent of the girls managed to complete the full 40 days without accessing their device at all. A total of 28 percent managed to stick to it most of the time with a few cheat days, while over 5 percent could not meet the challenge; 23 percent who pledged don’t own phones but indicated they wanted to support the school and their friends.

Principal Natalie Meerholz said, “Parents tend to overestimate the dangers of the ‘real world’ and underestimate the dangers of a smartphone. Children have more information at their fingertips than ever before. They are more exposed to a world of mystery and wonder, but also to more inappropriate content and physiologically, their brains are not able to cope with what they see.” She added that, although the female Alpha generation (born after 2010) appears feisty and confident, they are still little girls.

Social media and smartphone legislation changing

The school’s campaign coincided with newly published legislation in Florida (USA) that makes social media unlawful for children under 14. The new legislation mandates social media platforms to bar individuals under the age of 14 from establishing accounts and to erase any existing ones. That means no more TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook or Instagram. Those aged 13 and under face a complete prohibition from social media.

Similarly, the British government recently revealed plans to implement strict regulations prohibiting mobile phones in schools, even during break times. Several UK schools have already implemented this policy, highlighting numerous positive outcomes.

With links to classroom distraction, reduced focus and lower educational outcomes, UNESCO called for smartphones to be banned in schools in 2023.

“The peer pressure around smartphone ownership is high, not only for children, but also for parents. It makes parents feel powerless – often believing their children will be left out, left behind or less productive and they therefore give in to this pressure at a very young age – sometimes as early as Grade 0,” says Meerholz. “As a result, childhoods are increasingly devoid of play-based experiences, leaving children deprived of both play and genuine connections.

Signing up for the 40 days no cellphone challenge.

Upward turn in teenage mental illness

The findings of scientific research heavily support the fact that smartphone usage is an accelerator of mental health issues in teenage years, especially amongst young girls. Meerholz quotes statistics released by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) in 2022 that show that an alarming nine percent of all teenage deaths in SA are suicides.

“While we cannot solely attribute all instances of suicides to social media and smart phones, global research is drawing parallels and highlighting negative associations that demand serious attention.”

Reinforcing this, American social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt draws correlations between the increase in depression, anxiety and self-harm in adolescent girls with the proliferation of social media – particularly Instagram (IG).

His research indicates that apps like IG, which portray unrealistic images of beauty, can loom in a girl’s mind, driving hours of obsessive thought, worry and shame. At the start of the 2010s when IG launched, rates of teenage mental illness took a sharp upward turn, and they have been rising ever since.

Haidt’s most recent book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, argues that smartphones have ignited a wildfire of anxiety and depression in Gen Z around the world. He identifies four foundational harms in this degradation of youth: social deprivation (isolation), sleep deprivation, attention fragmentation and addiction.

“Science also suggests that young brains, tweens and teenagers have a high susceptibility to rewards. High levels of dopamine are released with the thought of what messages/likes/attention they might receive… This can lead to addictions and both our parents and teachers alike are constantly complaining that children are addicted to their devices,” says Meerholz.

The no cellphone certificate

Extensive positive outcomes

Knowing it would be a challenging 40 days, ‘Smart Circles’ were set up where participating students could voluntarily meet at break for 30 minutes to discuss how they were feeling. These sessions added another layer of support to girls who needed to talk about what they were experiencing.

During the 40 days, some students volunteered to journal and share their experiences anonymously. Feedback showed that children found themselves bored, not knowing how to occupy their time. Meerholz says this isn’t a bad thing because children who experience boredom are more creative and innovative. “They are forced to either learn a new skill, create something new, or think outside the box, and it was our hope that the campaign would push this to happen.”

Although it was challenging for many of the girls, they reported better quality sleep during the 40 days, feeling less tired and irritable, and generally happier. Interaction among family members intensified, leading to more profound and meaningful conversations; increased conflict was perceived positively, as it signalled a shift from previous disengagement to genuine connection and effective conflict resolution. New hobbies were explored, including reading, knitting and baking with a marked increase in self-discipline and less procrastination being reported.

An underlying intent of the initiative was to push the girls to tackle something truly difficult. Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck emphasises the significance of encouraging children to engage in challenging tasks that stretch them: it’s through these experiences that they learn, grow, discover and understand themselves better.

Supporting this Meerholz says, “The Phone-Free, 40 Days initiative provided the girls with precisely such an opportunity. The sense of confidence and accomplishment derived from successfully completing a challenge that defied societal norms was the ultimate victory.”

Some 88 adult members of the community also pledged to give up an app or limit smartphone usage. This was highly beneficial because parents should demonstrate the habits of screen time they wish to see in their children. A group of these parents also answered questions on a weekly basis, noting their personal experience and the behaviour of their daughters.

Holy Rosary School principal supports children in the no cellphone challenge

Moving forward: sustaining and expanding the evolution

“Our goal is for parents to feel no pressure to purchase phones – but this can only be achieved if the community stands together… We need to get our pupils off their phones and into the world so that they can grow into capable, confident, engaged, and happy adults. Our initiative is just the start of this process,” concludes Meerholz.

Holy Rosary follows the philosophy of non-profit organisation LetGrow: ‘Today’s children are smarter and stronger than they are given credit for and they need independence to grow. Parents need to let go – to let kids grow.

This starts with free play and more responsibility and not extended screen time – because phones are experience blockers.’ The school plans to introduce additional programmes and campaigns to promote play-based childhoods with reduced screen time, delayed social media adoption and the postponement of smartphone ownership.

Holy Rosary is hoping that by delaying giving their children smartphones parents will realise they are actually protecting their children and placing a premium on their social and emotional wellbeing.