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Principal To Students: Here’s $100 If You Can Ditch Your Phone

But bribing kids might end up backfiring

Before I became a journalist, I worked as a teacher, and one year I had a third grader who was sometimes reluctant to participate in class. One afternoon, instead of writing down three math problems that were on the board, he was busy rolling a clump of boogers (as children sometimes do) across the top of his desk.


I told him I’d give him a dollar if he could write down the problems in less than 30 seconds. He promptly did it, and I handed over the dollar. Do you think he wrote down the next few math problems on his own?

“Give me another dollar,” he told me. I refused. He went back to rolling the boogers.

But perhaps an administrator in the nation’s capitol will have better luck bribing students than I did. Diana Smith, the principal at Washington Latin Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., is offering her eighth- and ninth-graders $100 each if they can do one thing that most adults would struggle to do: Avoid all electronic devices for an entire day once a week.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]I challenge them to stay off of any screens—so television, games, phones, tablets, everything."[/quote]

And she does mean “all” electronic devices. “I challenge them to stay off of any screens—so television, games, phones, tablets, everything—for the 11 Tuesdays that we have of summer break,” Smith told WTOP on Monday.

Smith said she came up with her Benjamins-for-ditching-devices plan because she was concerned about the amount of time students spend staring at screens. “Kids have these phones under their pillows at night—they’re going to bed, they’re texting each other at 3:00, 4:00 in the morning,” said Smith.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Seventy-eight percent of teens check their phones at least once an hour.[/quote]

A survey released last year by Common Sense Media found that 78 percent of teens check their phones at least once an hour, and half of teens surveyed said they think they’re addicted to their devices. It’s not just teenagers who are hooked: In one well-known study, college students who were asked to avoid all electronic devices for 24 hours expressed symptoms akin to drug withdrawal. “I was itching like a crackhead,” said one of participant.

What Smith is also concerned about is that during the summer when school is out, a kid could potentially spend the majority of their day texting friends, posting to Instagram, maintaining their Snapchat streak, binge-watching a show on a streaming service, and then getting in a little video game action. All that screen time leaves little room for reading, spending time engaged in physical activity, or socializing with friends and family members. Hello, summer learning slide!

Given that, it’s understandable that Smith would want to bribe her students to avoid devices for at least some of the time. The principal said she thinks only about 50 out of 160 eligible students will be able to complete her challenge. In order to get the cash, the kids will also need to have two adults vouch in writing for their efforts. But in the future, will they give up electronic devices on their own?

As Edward Deci, a human motivation expert and professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, told The New York Times in 2013, bribery doesn’t really work in the long run because you’re trying to get kids to modify their behavior “more or less ongoingly for the rest of their lives.” As Deci put it—and as I found with my booger-rolling, dollar-demanding student years ago, if you’re not going to offer a reward every time, bribes can backfire big time. Still, if each of Smith’s students manages to abstain from screens once a week for the rest of the summer, she could be out $16,000.

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