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‘Driver’s Ed’ for the digital highway

 

With Jonathan & Joanne Brozozog

            With almost enough cell phones for every single person in the world to have one, the idea of issuing teens permits for the ubiquitous devices seems almost quaint—a bit like closing the barn door too late. But the innovative Cell Phone Permit (CPP) program isn’t about locking young people out of the digital world, but rather preparing them to roam safely.

            The initiative has been launched by an entrepreneurial pastor in response to widespread concerns about the impact cell phone access is having on teens: a Los Angeles Children’s Hospital website article points to research finding that high school students who spend too much time texting or on social network sites “are at higher risk for other issues, including smoking, risky sex, depression, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, and absenteeism.”

            In Minnesota, where Jonathan Brozozog pastors Creative Church in suburban Minneapolis, it takes about 30 hours of driver’s education classroom instruction before teens are allowed behind the wheel, he notes. “But parents have a 15-minute conversation with their child before giving them a phone. When the child gets in trouble, they take it away for two weeks and then give it back. There’s no education.”

            After aiming at residents of the Minneapolis and St. Paul area, CPP recently launched a nationwide rollout via an online course. The latest in a series of initiatives through which Brozozog aims to take church out into the world, it is y cable and YouTube advertising.

            “We’re trying to reach people outside the four walls of the church,” the pastor says. “I always tell people if you have an opportunity to share your faith, share what God’s done in your life and who he’s been. We’re just trying to find ways to get into the marketplace and have a voice and make a difference.”  

            The eight lessons Jonathan and his wife, Joanne, designed over a year-long review period include such topics as avoiding cell phone addiction, healthy social media usage, how to overcome cyberbullying, and overcoming social media/text anxiety. While parents might be able to cover the course in eight hours in one-on-one sessions with their child, in a classroom they can run for a semester to allow plenty of time for discussion.

            Presently aimed at children 10-15, the course will soon be divided into 10-14 and 15-18 age categories, with adult classes coming in the future.

 

‘A different mindset’

            The Brozozogs were inspired to do something after their oldest son’s request for a smartphone in his early teens. Concerned about him venturing into high-tech communications with no prior instruction, they began looking for educational options—and couldn’t find any.

            Another trigger was the church’s most recent entrepreneurial endeavor: a driver’s education course, which they believe was the nation’s only church-operated driver’s ed. For about eight years (until they scrapped it during COVID-19 lockdowns) the fees generated through meeting that felt need helped fund their youth ministry, an expensive undertaking with 300 students.

            “Joanne and I started talking about the cell phone and we realized there was nothing out there,” says Jonathan. “So having this experience with driver’s ed gave us a different mindset about the education of teenagers and what they need to learn. We said, ‘This might be the thing that God is leading us to do, to create a course to help teens learn about the challenges, pitfalls and also the wins of the cell phone before they get it.’”

            Wanting to keep the course separate from the church, the couple registered the entity as a 501-C-3 nonprofit. This organizational status allows businesses and others to donate funds to pay the per-student fee for those from disadvantaged economic backgrounds.

            Based in an office condominium a block from the church in Maple Grove, Cell Phone Permit (www.cellphonepermit.com) offered about a dozen classes its first year. Some sessions were held at its offices and others at host sites, like the church’s Creative Academy and a community education program in neighboring St. Louis Park. This year three other Christian academies began offering classes, with hopes that one day the course will be adopted in public schools.

            Program administrator Naomi Dahl and two other employees oversee day-to-day operations, with the church’s ministries director, Andrew Isahaq, helping lead some of the class discussions. Most instruction is done via prerecorded TikTok-style videos, but facilitators oversee student discussions.

            Dahl recognized the value of what they are doing after the very first class in April of 2021. It happened when they reached the topic of “sexting” (sending sexually explicit texts or photos).  

            Isahaq took the boys into a separate classroom for a talk while Dahl remained with the girls. As the boys chatted with Isahaq, a 12-year-old confessed, “I’ve been looking at porn on my phone. Will you help me tell my mom?” After the class that evening, the teacher facilitated that discussion; afterwards, mother and son walked away arm-in-arm.

            “It’s really helping them,” says Dahl, who chokes back emotion relating the story. “She wasn’t angry. She said, ‘I’m proud of you for telling me. We’re going to walk through this together.’ That’s when I knew we were doing something great.”

            The impact the course has been making on students can be seen via surveys of more than 200 participants in the first year’s classes. Since taking CPP, 97% are more willing to tell a friend when they are looking at something inappropriate on their devices, 92% agree their self-esteem has improved, and 50% say their cell-phone-related anxiety has decreased.

 

‘Effecting change’

            For Dahl, a criminal justice major at the University of North Dakota, this work is much more rewarding than the two years she spent as a juvenile detention officer after college. A native of a small town near the Canadian border, when Dahl moved to Minneapolis in 2019, she wanted to do something that would make more of an immediate impact on teens instead of dealing with fallout at the other end.

            “Everything was happening on their cell phones,” Dahl says of the juvenile offenders she worked with. “All the evidence police found, like sexting, came from their phones. If they’re not used in the correct way, they can be very damaging. We are effecting change.”

            In addition to the students, most parents are grateful; those who recently led their child through an online course at home say they learned as much as the student. Parents are particularly grateful for the guidelines in high-tech relationships. The only area where Dahl says they have gotten pushback is from parents who have never given their kids any guidelines and now have to walk back their leniency.

            Creative Church member Jessica (who asked that only her first name be used) is quite happy about the practical education her 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son received in the first CPP class at the church. She and her husband decided both kids needed phones for practical reasons, including the need to stay in touch when they were at outings or at home alone with no landline available.

            Her daughter had been using her phone for a year before going through the course, and experienced the biggest change. Although her parents had allowed her to use Instagram before, near the end of CPP the girl decided to drop it.

            “I’m going to delete Instagram,” the teen declared one evening after class. “I’m too young and I’m not ready for it.”

            “We weren’t expecting that,” Jessica says. “We had set some parameters; we told her it was only OK to post about family, sports and faith. But when she came home and said, ‘I don’t think I’m ready for Instagram,’ it was a big deal. That came from her getting a better understanding of what social media is and (asking herself), ‘How am I using it?’ Even now she’ll go through periods where she says, ‘I’m going to fast my phone for a while’ and set it down.”

            One thing that especially pleases the mom, a former schoolteacher turned teaching mentor, is the contract that students sign with their parents at the end of the course, affirming they will use their phone responsibly in the future. The contract includes phased-in use: six months phone only, and then on to text, and six months later the internet. If the student breaks the contract at any point, it’s back to phone use only.

            While her son primarily uses his phone to play games or text friends, CPP made Jessica’s daughter more aware of social media hazards, like inappropriate dancing or lyrics on TikTok. It has also led to more impromptu conversations between mother and daughter about social media and other topics.

            “I tell parents to put their child into this course so they can get an understanding of phones, good and bad,” Jessica says. “It’s such good content and because it’s coming from a faith-based heart there’s nothing like it. I wish every kid could do this before they get their phone and make mistakes.”

 

‘Healthy digital citizens’

            Nathan Yancy, assistant principal of Maranatha Christian Academy, persuaded the Brooklyn Park school to begin offering the course this year after his 12-year-old daughter went through it last summer. More than 70 sixth and eighth graders are enrolled in classes, which meet twice a week.

            Yancy personally observed his oldest daughter understand the importance of how she uses her phone and being responsible in its use. He says in the parental sessions, he and many others received great insights into talking with their children about phone use, monitoring their activity, and drawing up a family plan with guidelines and expectations.

            After this experience, Yancy says he knew this was exactly what Maranatha needed. With the use of cell phones, social media and gaming a major element of disciplinary issues, he thinks it is time that educators make training for cell phone use a priority.

            “Educating students and parents on the appropriate use of phones is something that is greatly needed,” Yancy said. “Our plan would be to have all the students take the class as they enter middle school. We’re considering requiring students to take the course in order to carry a phone onto campus.”

            One surprise discovery for Brozozog during the research phase of CPP was the inordinate amounts of money parents devote to their children’s sports and extracurricular activities. They will spend $2,000 a year on youth sports or dancing lessons, though the chances of a youngster taking that endeavor to a professional level is a fraction of 1%. Yet the likelihood of a young person carrying a smartphone into adult life is 98%.

            “Somewhere we’ve gotten this backwards, where the amount of time and money parents are spending on extracurricular activities is so high, but kids are on the phone constantly and the time we’re spending educating them is minutes,” Brozozog says. “Most of the people running these social media platforms don’t want their own kids on them.”

            The pastor also learned that there is a lot of Big Brother-type software that will enable parents to monitor their children’s online and cell phone footprint, but not much instruction. He says there aren’t cautions against dangerous activities like texting while driving or sending inappropriate photos, or how to help a friend who is being victimized via texts or social media.

            Since proper cell phone instruction when kids are eight or nine is far preferable to teens trying to correct bad habits, Brozozog would love to see millions of students going through the course. Not only the children but their parents can benefit, says the pastor, having seen up close the “train wrecks” resulting from out-of-control cell phone usage.

            “It’s great seeing families learn how to use this tool but within context,” he says. “Without constraints, it’s like fire. Fire turned loose can destroy things, but within a fireplace it can be a benefit. Our focus on this is to see students become good, healthy digital citizens and be able to use these tools in a positive way.”

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