At the private school Dragon School in Torrelodones (Madrid), the war against mobile phones in the classroom has taken the final step. Lockers, self-regulation or a blind eye at recess are no longer enough. At the school, students carry their mobile phones locked in cloth bags with a security magnet closure, which works in a similar way to the anti-theft of supermarkets or clothes in department stores. Every morning and afternoon, students wait in line with their bags to pass through the magnet by the door, held by a couple of teachers.
Young people's opinions are divided: some experience it naturally because they have been receiving courses and workshops for years on the proper use of mobile phones and their dangers. Others, on the other hand, take it worse: "I think it's bad, what am I going to tell you," says a 17-year-old student. The management, on the other hand, is delighted: "Now we no longer have to confiscate mobile phones, we have stopped playing bad cops," says Mariana Evangelista, director of Admissions at the center.
The school has banned mobile phones since 2020. "Before the pandemic, it wasn't a problem," Evangelista says. "After Covid, children became terribly addicted. One day we went on an excursion where you couldn't take a mobile phone and an 11-year-old girl started screaming, crying and kicking because she didn't have one," he adds. They started to be stricter, but some students were still using them in the bathroom or in free time. The school wanted to avoid going any further: "You can't be frisking kids, what are you going to become?" says Evangelista.
A director of the school received an advertisement on social media for a resource that was used mainly by American schools. It was from Yondr, an American company founded in 2014 that manufactures these bags with the aim of creating mobile-free spaces. Bob Dylan used them on his last tour and they have been used in courts, libraries, weddings or museums. Its main product is the bag where the mobile phone is enclosed, and only opens with a magnet when leaving the space.
The school contacted them and in May they signed an agreement. The U.S. is the country with the most schools with bags, according to the company. In Europe, the two main ones are the United Kingdom and Ireland. There are 16 countries in the world that use Yondr products, most of them in Europe. In Spain, only the Dragon School uses this resource.
Yondr says he is in contact with Spanish authorities. Asked by this newspaper, the company said it had had conversations with the Department of Education of the Generalitat de Catalunya and with the offices of the mayor of Barcelona, Jaume Collboni, and his deputy mayor, Maria Eugènia Gay. None of these institutions confirm that there have been formal meetings with Yondr.
Along with families, the other great battleground for teenagers when it comes to using a mobile phone is school. In Galicia, Castilla-La Mancha and Madrid, mobile phones are prohibited, while the rest is left in the hands of each centre. But theory is much easier than practice: there are teachers who ask for cell phones to look at a map or an educational app, in the playgrounds no one watches every corner and many families want their children to maintain some access in case they have to talk to them.
A student from the Dragon School places his mobile phone in a Yondr bag. Beside him, teacher Romaric Sewell holds one of the seven numbered devices with a magnet used to seal and open the envelope at the entrance to the school. Santi Burgos
In a private email addressed to a group of parents, to which EL PAÍS has had access, a teacher describes the situation of his high school in Madrid: "Mobile phones are prohibited in schools by regulation, it is not a debatable issue. The problem is enforcing it or who should enforce it. From the moment we let them take their mobile phone to school, it is up to the students whether or not they pay attention to us when to use it. If they wear it, they should leave it in their backpack, turned off, when they enter high school. It seems that it is allowed in class if the teacher lets you take it out to do a certain activity, which in the end also confuses the students," he writes. Even if some are requisitioned, it is a losing battle on so many fronts. Hence, the Dragon School opted for this solution.
"It's My Temptation"
"It's tempting for me," says an 18-year-old student at the Dragon School, holding the Yondr bag in her hand. It's something like a chastity belt or a condom, depending on how you look at it: the object of desire is in there and there's no access. Mobile phones must be turned off inside the bag to prevent students from connecting to it with tablets or computers. Smartwatches also go inside the envelope. To avoid any attempt at cheating, the school has numbered the seven magnets used to open the bags at the exit of the school. That way they don't get lost.
"Teachers and parents are thrilled," says Helder Marques, Director of Operations at the Dragon School. "Among children, perhaps the older ones have more problems. When we did the introductory meeting on September 13th, we said, 'We have a great gift for you.' They were delighted: 'What is the school going to give us? A cup?'" But no. It was a grey bag to enclose the mobile phone. The Dragon School bought 200 bags for the 160 students it has with mobile phones. Prices, according to Yondr, are around 30 euros per bag, although they can make discounts, such as in Torrelodones, where they paid about 20 euros per bag.
At the Dragon School they have taken this step because the families accepted it in a previous meeting. "Other schools may think that the family will be angry or that the student will be angry. That's why we have to teach them, first, that this is good for them, that it's for their future," Marques says. Her school runs constant courses and workshops on the problems that can be caused by the use of networks or addiction to mobile phones. Many of his students understand these limitations and accept them at face value.
The school considers that mobile phones are more harmful than positive and they are convinced of their bet. "Children waste a lot of time on their phones and they don't have the maturity to know that that time doesn't come back," says Evangelista. "I think this helps them become aware of interacting with others, it gives them the opportunity to open the window a little more." Inside the classrooms, the school allows the use of computers or tablets for work. "In class, these kids are less anxious. They work better, they're more relaxed. There's no fighting," Evangelista adds.
Despite this battle against mobile, the problem, management says, is not the technology itself. "We also use a lot of artificial intelligence," says Marques, with tools like ChatGPT. "You're not denying them technology, you're warning them to be aware that when they're not with this all they can do," Evangelista says.
Experts have doubts
EL PAÍS has consulted with two experts in digital disconnection about the usefulness of this type of extraordinary limits on mobile phone use. As usual, there are no definitive answers and it often depends on the affected adolescent and other factors around him. "In terms of self-control, bags can help some people because they eliminate the immediate temptation to look at their phones, which reduces distractions. However, for others, not being fully available can be a stressor," says Mehri S. Agai, a researcher at the University of Bergen in Norway.
Although the aim of these measures tends to be to educate young people so that they do not reproduce some bad adult habits, it should be noted that their digital needs may be different: these periods of digital disconnection "require more effort for adolescents as a group," says Agai. "The reason is that they depend on the digital world for their leisure, socialization and, most importantly, in their attempts to form their identity. They've grown up in a world where digital technology is ubiquitous," he adds.
That's not to say teens don't switch off: "Of course they do, but it might be harder," Agai says. "In fact, there are studies that show that younger people are more intentionally disconnected because they are more tech-savvy than older generations. They know how to disconnect using their phone's apps, modes, and other settings," he adds.
The main challenge of these methods is to accompany them with constant education, both in word and example. And this is not always the case, according to Patricia Dias, a professor at the Catholic University of Portugal: "Learning to self-regulate is a very important skill for children, and they face more and more difficulties in doing so because they live in a world of instant feedback, permanent connection and immediate reward. If we rely on prohibition, making devices inaccessible, and surveillance, what will children do when no one is watching or watching them? The best thing to do is to support them so that they learn to make good decisions, so that they can be independent and autonomous. These bags can be a transitory stage in this learning process, or even part of a gamified system, but they are not the solution. The solution is self-regulation," says Dias.
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