What happened when these Cork pupils turned off their phones for a week

Colm O’Sullivan, student council liaison leader, Kate Corcoran, student council president, and Helen Cadogan, principal. Pictures: Denis Boyle

400 students at St Brogan’s College, Bandon, have agreed to a ‘tech detox’ to improve their sleep, says Áilín Quinlan

Today, 400 second-level students in a West Cork school will begin a week-long “tech detox”.

The aim is to see if they sleep better without their phones beeping and chirping beneath their pillows.

The initiative is being spearheaded by the student council and teachers at St Brogan’s College, Bandon. Although the school has a no-tech policy, the use of devices outside of classroom hours is causing concern.

Teacher Colm O’Sullivan says: “Over the past four or five years, teachers have been noticing that some students were coming in to school tired, and that some of them seemed to be sleep-deprived, with rings under their eyes.

“It wasn’t just about being a bit tired in the morning.

“From conversations we were having with students, we could see they were staying up later. They’d say they didn’t sleep great.”

On average, three to four students out of any group of 20 to 25 seemed to be experiencing this level of tiredness, says Mr O’Sullivan, who teaches geography and history.

“Last October, Paudie Palmer, who is our home-school liaison officer, said to me that he had noticed this was becoming an issue, and he thought it was something we should look into.”

The teachers decided that any initiative should be student-led, so they brought the issue to the attention of the student council.

If you asked students why they were up late, they’d say that they were on their phone or playing video games till 11pm or midnight.

“It seemed that a minority, perhaps around 5% to 10%, were staying up until past midnight, while a few were on their phones until the early hours,” Mr O’Sullivan says.

In conjunction with the student council, it was decided to survey the student body. A questionnaire on night-time phone usage and sleep-time habits was circulated to all 450 students at St Brogan’s, shortly before Christmas.

The survey had a 77% response rate, and the findings sparked concern. They showed that 93% of the senior cycle students (fifth and sixth-years) surveyed had their phones in their bedrooms at night, and that 37% of them were waking up at night and checking their phones.

Of the Leaving Certificate students surveyed, 100% had their phones in their bedrooms, and 50% of them were waking up at night and checking their phones. Around 40% of sixth-year students surveyed said they used their phone in bed, while only 14% turned off the phone at night. Nearly 75% said they received phone notifications while they slept.

Student Council president Kate Corcoran, 16, who is in fifth year, said that, anecdotally, she had noticed that some classmates were unable to concentrate and were sleepy in class.

Kate Corcoran, student council president, St Brogan’s College Bandon
Kate Corcoran, student council president, St Brogan’s College Bandon

“Teachers were getting frustrated,” she said, adding that students would report not getting much sleep, because they were “up very late on their phones, checking social media or Facetiming, for example.”

However, she said, she was surprised that 50% of the students surveyed in the senior exam year were waking at night to check their phones.

“It was disrupting their sleep,” she said, adding that 65% of Leaving Cert students were using their phone instead of an alarm clock.

“Once you know your phone is there, you will be checking for notifications,” she said, adding that although she does bring her phone into her bedroom, she turns it off.

Students were interested in participating in the survey, she said, and 417 out of a student body of 450 handed back completed questionnaires.

Among the findings was that 51% of first-years had phones in bedrooms, 23% woke regularly during the night and checked their phone, and only 40% turned off their phone at night.

By third year, 83% of students surveyed had phones in their bedroom, 31% woke up regularly during the night and checked their phones, and 86% regularly used their phone in bed at night. At this point, just 19% turned off the phone at night.

Based on the findings, Mr O’Sullivan said, it was decided to carry out an optional, week-long, tech-detox across the student body, “as there appeared to be a lot of tech use by students in bed, when they were supposed to be asleep.”

Between 300 and 400 students were expected to participate in the optional tech detox, which begins on Monday, March 4 and which will run until Monday, March 11.

“All students are being asked to participate and to ban tech between the hours of 10pm and morning wake-up,” said Mr O’Sullivan, who added that the initiative had the backing of the Parents’ Association.

Following the detox, said Mr O’Sullivan, a small focus group would be established to discuss students’ feelings about the detox, while a questionnaire would also be circulated to discover the full extent of the tech devices being used by students at night.

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