This year, staff and students at Buxton School in Williamstown are doing what many of us have only dreamed of: putting down their smartphones. The new policy, which was introduced this February and will go into effect in September, disallows all smartphones on campus, with the goal of encouraging all members of the Buxton community to step away from today’s hyper-connected culture and engage with one another and the world around them in a deeper, more meaningful way.

“Buxton is designed to be a small school that emphasizes engagement, and really being with each other in time and space,” said Franny Shuker-Haines, Director Emeritus of Buxton School. “We were seeing — as hard as we were working to make this experience at Buxton as compelling as possible — ultimately, we're kind of no match for Silicon Valley.”

The constant presence of smartphones, she noted, encouraged “a kind of connectivity that actually isn't really connecting them to what they need to be connected to, but in fact, preventing them from being connected in a more visceral way with each other and the people around them,” especially in younger students.

Unfortunately, smartphones aren’t just a classroom distraction. Social media networks have harnessed the potentially addictive nature of smartphones to keep users engaged as long as possible, as often as possible. Apps like Tik Tok and Instagram are a major subject of concern for children’s mental health experts on their own. In his 2021 advisory on the youth mental health crisis, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy specifically called out social media as a contributor to the rising rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions in children and teens: “When not deployed responsibly and safely, these tools can pit us against each other, reinforce negative behaviors like bullying and exclusion, and undermine the safe and supportive environments young people need and deserve.”

In that way, the ban on smartphones is a matter of health and safety. “It's not so dissimilar to the conversation a lot of schools were having about smoking 30 years ago,” Shuker-Haines said. “This is something that people have gotten really used to having in their lives, that they're very dependent on. And there will be a hard transition for them.”

While some students have, predictably, been less than enthusiastic about giving up their iPhones for hours at a time, Shuker-Haines said the response from parents and former students has been overwhelmingly positive. “The alumni support has been phenomenal. People are so behind this,” she said. “They want this so much, partly because Buxton's pretty special. It's a unique school, and one of the things that's unique about it is the way in which community is the central teaching tool of the school. And I think anybody who knew Buxton back in the day can easily imagine how this technology could be corrosive.”

Buxton isn’t the first school to enact a smartphone ban, joining a small but growing number of institutions across the country. “There are a few other progressive schools that have similar policies,” Shuker-Haines said. “So we know it can be done.”