Anita Charles, director of a teacher education program for secondary teacher candidates at Bates College in Lewiston, is slated to appear Friday on an ABC News special focusing on cellphones. Bates College photo by Phyllis Graber Jensen

LEWISTON — Anita Charles, who directs a teacher education program at Bates College, cannot see ABC shows at her house in Auburn.

Since she almost never watches television, it usually does not matter.

But Friday evening, Charles is determined to catch a two-hour special called “ScreenTime: Diane Sawyer Reporting,” because she expects to be featured on it after the network flew her last month to New York City for a one-hour, on-camera interview with Sawyer about her research on cellphone use in schools.

“I had such a nice conversation with her,” Charles said Thursday, who called it cool and exciting to have the opportunity.

But since she does not have cable and does not get ABC over the air, she said, “I can’t even watch this program” from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday.

Reviewing her options, she said, she decided to reach out to a friend in Windham to explain her dilemma.


“Would you mind if I come to your house?” Charles said she asked.

So Charles, a lecturer in education at Bates with lots of classroom experience, will be watching with her friend, wondering how much, if any, of the interview winds up in the show. It is billed by the network as a comprehensive look at whether people have become too wrapped up in the screens they eyeball for the equivalent of 49 days per year.

Charles began looking into the issue of cellphone use at school a decade ago after realizing that their presence in nearly everyone’s pocket afforded a “really interesting” question about how their use is regulated, formally and informally.

She said she found that in practice, the rules about cellphones and social media were actually negotiated in the context of relationships between teachers and students. Even outright bans in some schools were, Charles found, often ignored when teachers wanted to show something for class on a phone or let students record homework assignments on their phones.

Bans, she said, become “a venue for subversion” of the rules by savvy students who see skirting authority as a power play.

The best way to cope with the spread of phones, Charles said, is for adults and youngsters to work out how and when to rely on them. She said she favors setting limits, especially for younger children, and to keep discussing about what the limits ought to be as teachers, parents and students deal with them.


“Part of the issue is the adults in the world don’t really know what they’re talking about” yet have a duty to rein in phone use to keep children safe, she said.

“We need to just be mindful and aware,” Charles said. “We are trying to figure out things together.”

Taking on the role as a sort of facilitator of caring conversation about phones has led to her growing prominence in the field, which took off after the Bates communication office issued a story about her in March 2018 that quickly became a staple on Google’s search results.

“It hit a nerve,” Charles said, and brought her growing recognition in the media.

Still, when a “20/20” producer for ABC called her last month to talk about it, Charles said she was wowed. That soon led to a conversation on the phone with Sawyer and then, two weeks ago, the chance to appear before the cameras with the journalist in New York.

Though the only people specially identified as speaking on the show are Sawyer and Tim Cook, the chief executive officer of Apple, Charles heard late Thursday from the producer. She will be shown in the second half of the special, she was told.

Charles said she has also been asked to participate in a round table of experts, and to give advice on social media about topics raised by the show.

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