Disconnect and unplug. That’s the new message for Colorado Academy students when they arrive at the CA Campus Center. It reflects the conviction of Head of School Mike Davis, Ph.D., that students should take a break from texting and talking on their phones while they are at lunch and use that time to make personal connections with each other. 

“There are statistics indicating that being connected on social media 24/7 creates damaging effects, including negative self-image and depression,” Davis says. “We need to be adults and leaders and take a stand on this issue.” 

The stand that Davis has taken is evident in the Campus Center, with posted signs that say “Unplug: Be present together,” “Disconnect,” and “Thank you for putting away your mobile device.” For students who have been accustomed to using lunch as a time to pull out their phones and catch up on text messages, email, sports clips, and social media, this has been a cultural shift.   

“The phone is a big part of your life,” says CA Sophomore Merrill Rollhaus. “So this is definitely an adjustment.” 

CA Junior Mac Behrhorst finds that he has to catch himself, as his hand still automatically goes to pull the phone out of the pocket. Now, he stops mid-move and reminds himself that his phone needs to stay out of sight while he is in the dining hall.   

“The phone is a big part of your life,” says CA Sophomore Merrill Rollhaus. “So this is definitely an adjustment.” 

Davis remembers that when he first floated the idea of technology-free days and zones at CA last year, students cheered. “The idea that we should be more unplugged resonated with them,” Davis says. “Students get this.” When he takes students on interim trips to areas of Utah where they have no mobile phone connections, students have told him they like it. “They say they feel refreshed, they sleep better, and issues they were dealing with resolve on their own,” he says.  

Davis’s mindful approach to technology use is a nod to the work of clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age in which she provides straightforward, practical advice on how to address omnipresent technology in children’s lives. Steiner-Adair estimates that, on average, children ages 8 to 18 are spending more than seven hours a day on electronic devices. 

For many families, the mobile phone has become a member of the family. Steiner-Adair points out that in a time of chronic tech distractions, children also desperately need parents and friends to provide what tech cannot: close, significant interactions with the people in their lives.  

Students are acknowledging the need for change, and in some cases, embracing the new Campus Center “Unplug” culture. 

“In the past, I’ve actually seen students sitting in the dining hall talking or texting on their phones to people who are sitting at the same table!” says CA Sophomore Quinn Taylor. “I understand the appeal of doing that, but I am glad there is an attempt to shut it down.”  

“We have a ton of social media,” CA Senior Eric Bear says. “We are always on the phone, so it feels good to disconnect.” 

“You have four years together, and you have 20 minutes a day to actually talk to your friends,” adds CA Senior Tommy Ehringer. “So you should use that time.” 

As for CA Senior Viv Shamma, the new approach to Campus Center technology has not made a difference. She never used her phone in the dining hall. “Why would I be on the phone?” she says, digging into her lunch. “Once I get here, I am preoccupied with eating.”