10 a.m.: Parent calls to say child is being bullied in athletic team chat.
11:45 a.m.: Mary is seen sitting alone in the cafeteria, looks like she’s been crying, phone in hand.
1:20 p.m.: Reports come in of a social media post warning students to not come to school tomorrow.
This could actually represent a day in the life of a school administrator. These events are not outliers but the new norm in our schools.
On any given day, teachers and administrators are forced to effectively wage war against the new challenge that inspires students to vandalize school property, or the social media cyberbullying that must be investigated and properly managed and even scary online pranks and threats. When they are not battling larger issues spawned out of technology use, staff members are trying to hold the interest of students who have learned through scrolling and swiping – students who expect information to be immediately intriguing.
While our kids may have off-the-charts social media engagement and may excel in emoji selection and concise 144-character statements, many of them aren’t engaging with real people in meaningful ways. Conversation – actual exchanges of thoughts, feelings and more – is the cornerstone of human relationships. And technology is eliminating the need for these critical human interactions. Skills that were once learned at very early ages – including active listening, thinking before speaking and how to read body language – are all nearing extinction as technology has created a new paradigm for relationships.
Even those students who seem to thrive in the world of one-minute videos, likes and comments are unknowingly suffering consequences of their tech use outside of school. Through no fault of their own, kids are not put into recurring situations where they would organically develop much-needed conversational skills. Because these skills aren’t being fostered, children are not having conversations with each other, with parents, or with teachers. They are not learning the easy give and take, back and forth volley of dialogue.
Our kids have less unscheduled, outdoor, imaginative free time and an ever-increasing amount of preplanned activities, tutoring and screen-time. Adults have almost forced kids to rely on technology as their primary means of communication, but we expect them to be able to handle constant electronic stimuli without any hiccups.
It is not surprising when I hear perspectives like this one from Dr. Lisa Gleason, superintendent of the Lavallette School District in Ocean County, who mentioned the following in a conversation with me. “Recently, we’ve begun to discuss whether cell phones on school trips can prove to be a liability for our students,” she said. “Because we know that cell phones are the gateway to unsupervised social media interaction, our district has recently discussed moving to a “no cell phone” policy on school trips.”
While I understand thinking about forbidding cell phones on field trips, we should not be aiming for a world where we remove all devices. In fact, digital detox usually enjoys only temporary success.
Here are some of the ways parents, teachers and students have tried to rein in tech use – a list I call, “Been there, done that, doesn’t work.”
Put it away: Yes, teachers can collect students’ phones and they can pick them up after class. And maybe that keeps their eyes off their phones for that class period. But it doesn’t keep their minds off them. Is anyone liking my photo? Did anyone respond to my text? Why did my friend block me last night? Putting it away doesn’t fix the issue.
Be more mindful: We can tell each other and our children to be more aware of how and how often we are using our apps. But because these devices are all-encompassing, that newfound awareness tends to be very fleeting before we return to mindlessly scrolling through our feeds, wasting time and putting too much pressure on ourselves to measure up and get/keep as many followers as we can.
Don’t use your device during meals: This is essentially the same as “put it away.” It is a temporary pause that doesn’t really lead to growth. And if we aren’t also teaching our kids how to have conversations, those mealtimes will be painfully awkward.
Avoid screens before bed/don’t sleep with it/charge your phone outside of your bedroom: These are all good measures to take, but our kids are crafty, and we can’t always police them. Technology addiction is real, so we need to dig deeper than the signs/symptoms and get to the heart of why our kids may feel the need to have their phones with them at bedtime and beyond.
Remove social media from devices: For so many kids, social media is their only connection to peers. So, some will not want to remove the apps, and others may try, and find themselves struggling.
Instead of the theoretical quick fixes listed above, we need to find ways to teach our children and parents how many of our most loved apps and sites use methods of psychological manipulation to keep us hooked. And most importantly, we must not allow our reliance on technology to take away our vital human connections. We need a system that helps us talk with and relate to each other – whether we are chatting with someone online whom we’ve never met, or we are standing side-by-side in a lunch line or at a grocery store.
This problem is a shared challenge for students, parents, teachers, administrators and school boards; therefore, it is a shared responsibility. A system would need to involve educating students and changing their mindset on the unintended consequences and side-effects of using technology. Students need to be engaged in conversations and activities about technology use to open their eyes. It is imperative that their level of awareness be raised because they are unaware of how their technology use affects everyone and everything.
The system would also need to engage all stakeholders – parents, teachers, administrators and school boards. Each of these groups is impacted by how students use technology outside of school and will benefit from students being less affected by recreational technology use. This is a collective effort, and we need to engage everyone and bring all forces to bear.