Parents, Schools Need to Cooperate on Smartphone Limits

For the Valley News
Monday, February 12, 2018

I remember the shift well. It happened a decade ago, soon after the first Androids and iPhones became common.

I was on a subway in New York when four middle school kids wearing their baseball uniforms entered the train. I played baseball as a kid, too, and remember the fun I had with my teammates bantering on the way to and from games. But their dynamic was different: These baseball players were plugged into their devices, headphones attached and thumbs moving with remarkable dexterity. None of them said a word. I don’t even recall them making eye contact with each other before they exited several stops later.

If you ask any educator who has been in the classroom over the last decade, they will tell you student interactions are different now. These observations are supported by a rapidly expanding body of research that links negative behavioral, emotional, physical, academic and developmental consequences with excess digital media exposure.

In her research, Sherry Turkle, the author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, describes the correlation between the use of screens and students’ inability to connect with others. By the time students have formed habits that connect them to their devices, they have “a hard time with the give-and-take of face-to-face conversation.” For those of us who work in schools, it is easy to make the correlation between the increased usage of devices and higher rates of teen anxiety, depression and social isolation.

Whether at home or at school, children still depend upon non-virtual relationships and direct interactions with family members, teachers and peers. But outside of those routines and connections, teenagers’ relationships increasingly exist online. And as the next generation of elementary students transitions to high school, many parents and educators fear that virtual relationships have the potential to overshadow actual, genuine ones.

As humans, we still need mentors who model wisdom and friends who offer solace — the exact support that is often missing from virtual platforms. Social media and digital connection is designed to be quick, not reflective; immediate, not nuanced. An email or Snapchat is convenient if you need a quick ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer for life’s various questions or when reminding your son or daughter to meet at a certain location after school.

But this medium doesn’t work when heightened emotion and complexity are involved. And when the communication goes wrong, students can quickly find themselves feeling ignored, or worse yet, ridiculed, as friends miss hard-to-read online clues or when new cliques are formed around the latest social media platform.

There is a growing body of research to suggest that spending time on the Internet changes the way our brains process information. The multitasking and sifting encouraged by the use of digital devices does not lend itself to deep emotional connection or deeper, more focused learning. 
Our willingness to incorporate the latest digital device into our homes, schools and workplaces comes without a comprehensive understanding of the effects that these technologies have on our family relationships, academic successes and professional satisfaction.

So what can be done to support students in our digital age? First, educators need to develop and enforce guidelines for technology in their schools. Thoughtful policies will ensure students maintain focus on their in-person interactions with teachers and friends throughout the school day.

But it’s now obvious that schools and parents need to do more in partnership. During a typical academic day, only about half of each student’s time is spent at school. To create a truly effective policy, schools and parents need to look at the full range of students’ daily routines and, reflecting upon what we have learned from recent articles and studies on this topic, make informed decisions that will help students be smarter about their relationship with technology outside of school.

The pull of digital technology on students’ evening and weekend hours is strong. In order to set appropriate limits for Internet use and social media exposure, parents and teachers must be aligned and committed. If only a handful of students abide by new guidelines, there’s the potential for even greater social isolation for the individuals that are restricted in their technology use. To achieve a significant shift in behavior, schools and parents must build consensus around initiatives, such as the “Wait Until 8th” pledge, that provide parents with a platform for when to provide their children with a smartphone.

Parents must also model responsible and judicious use of digital technology at home, remembering that healthy technology habits must be taught. Families may want to establish device-free activities, such as meals or family outings, and use this time to relay stories or share observations from the day. Computers can be switched to “focus mode” when reading a document. Parents may insist that digital devices are banned from bedrooms. And perhaps most difficult of all, parents also need to agree to spend time with children when their own device is stored, thus modeling positive habits.

Boundaries on digital media use will likely be met with varying degrees of 
resistance. Children will be quick to tell you that all of their friends are using devices at all hours of the day and that this is today’s “new normal.” They might also say, “Just because you grew up with dinosaurs doesn’t mean that kids should be deprived of what exists today.”

But if parents share a common awareness and approach with other families in the community and lived with similar policies, there is a much greater likelihood for coherence around these guidelines and building healthier relationships with technology both individually and collectively.

In short, it’s time for parents and teachers to work collaboratively and provide communities with guidelines that take into account not only what the devices can do today, but also what their influence will be on our children over the next five to 10 years. Only then do we have the chance to reclaim a certain part of our lives through fostering healthier technology relationships and habits.

Brad Choyt is head of school at Crossroads Academy in Lyme. TheValley NewsEducation page welcomes submissions from Upper Valley educators. Contact Alex Hanson at ahanson@vnews.com.