Having polished off a delicious blue plate special at Veggie Galaxy in Cambridge, I set off back toward Harvard Square. While I was admittedly clutching my phone in my right hand as my arm swung back and forth, as I watched person after person coming toward me staring down at their phones or talking to an unseen interlocuteur, I realized I no longer felt I was missing out on something by focusing on my actual environment instead of my own phone, quickly and frequently opening it up to unlock it and see what was going on in social media world. I wasn’t particularly surprised. But it did make me think about my journey to this point.
Although I used to work in the Tech Department here (designing, coding, and maintaining our original website and website 2.0; teaching Website Design; co-administering our email system; and helping with simple computer and printer maintenance), I was actually the last person in my family to get a smartphone (a gift from my wife and son). Once I had it, though, it quickly became an important tool in my life. As my “family in a pocket,” it enabled me to stay in close touch with my wife, who was working in Virginia, and my son, who was away in boarding school. Texting was no longer clunky, I could pull up documents if my son wanted help with his homework and I didn’t have a laptop handy, and of course we could still talk to each other just as with my old Nokia. Plus I now had a readily accessible camera, my music was ever-present (my phone would become a prime teaching tool in working with the Rock Bands), I could more quickly respond to email and, as I became involved in social media work for the School, I could both make posts and check how they were doing wherever I was.
I had always appreciated the usefulness of technology in networking and communicating - for one, I belonged to the old misc.kids USENET group for parents from back when my son was a baby, also maintaining the FAQs for daycare for a number of years. I also joined the ISED-L listserve for independent school educators and was invited to join the Middleweb listserve for middle school people; two or more decades later, I keep friendships from those days.
But the ubiquity of connectedness my phone provided became addictive. What if I missed an important idea, or an insightful question, or a link to a thoughtful article? What if someone shared something with the school and I didn’t provide a quick reaction? Plus, I rationalized, however unlikely it was that my son or wife might have an actual emergency, what if they did and I didn’t know about it right away because my phone was off or silenced or somewhere out of sight? And, as many of us now know, social media was designed to shape my brain to need more social media as the good feelings temporarily induced by chemicals in my brain faded away.
Many kids, I’ve noticed in talking to them and also in teaching Leadership 8 last year, have a pretty solid sense of the risks of social media. That class created a parents’ guide to social media that did a creditable job of trying not only to point out the good sides to social media but also to identify the risks and come up with genuinely workable strategies (many of which were rooted in research) to deal with them. And really, of course, those general principles could apply to pretty much any social sphere.
There’s currently a national push to restrict kids’ screen time, and for good reasons. As we discuss how best to do this, just as last year’s eighth graders brought nuance to the discussion of social media, so too we can seek balance in figuring out what parameters to set on children’s screen time. First of all, we can distinguish academic screen time from leisure time. We as teachers can think carefully about when academic screen time makes sense and when another format might serve students better. We can talk about finding balance in our lives, the kinds of connections (virtual and face-to-face) we are making, what feeds us and what leaves us more anxious or actually hurts us. Experts like Rachel Simmons, Rosalind Wiseman, and Ana Homayoun recommend discussing the effects of social media on kids’ lives with the kids themselves, how it can be used well and what are the downsides, as rules are made. The goals are both responsible use and a gradual passing of control from adults to kids as they grow up and gain in both maturity and insight.
In my case, I found the question (I forget who exactly suggested it or I would give credit) “Is this making you feel better or worse?” provided, even at my age, a wonderful guideline. No, when I was walking down the street, I did not feel better when my nose was in my phone. I felt more disconnected and isolated, less able to meet people’s eyes and smile at them and see them smile back, less likely to witness an unexpected cool moment. Once I was back home, maybe social media was bringing me provocative and insightful ideas on teaching and equity work, or conversations with teacher-friends, or just a link to a music video a friend loved, all of which were wonderful. Or maybe social media was increasing my anxiety and making me feel worse about myself. On such occasions, I have learned to unhesitatingly close up the offending apps and pick up a book or my guitar, or at least shift my screen time to YouTube so I can watch amazing live music. And of course, my nightly phone call from my wife is always a welcome break!
I don’t imagine for a moment that I have found the perfect balance once and for all. I’m not the perfect guest at any in-person social gathering, either. But I do imagine that I will keep reflecting, keep making deliberate decisions, keep trying to grow.
And I certainly hope and wish the same will be true for my students.