An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Bernie Noe, head of school

Head of School Bernie Noe recently emailed parents and guardians “Noe News is Good News: The Parents and Guardians Edition,” in which he shares his thoughts with on topics related to Lakeside students’ education. The bulk of the email appears in this blog.

 

…The use of social media by our students and teachers is very much on my mind at the moment. I am generally a technophile and appreciate what technology allows us to do on a daily basis. Technology has democratized access to information and made it so much easier for us to stay in touch with one another – really great improvements in our quality of life. It has also vastly increased our access to cultural events and ideas from around the world, which is also great. Initially, I even loved the advent of handheld devices with the convenience that they afford us.

In the last couple of years, however, I have begun to have my doubts about the impact of these handheld devices on our students’ education, their sense of self, and their community life at school. The generation of students currently at Lakeside (born 2000-2007) is in the middle of the first generation to have grown up with handheld devices. There is a lag between their use by this generation and the research on what their use might mean for our students and their education. Some small, targeted studies have been done but not a broad, systematic study. While we await the research, I want to point out what I believe are possible consequences. Some of my observations are based on anecdotal research with our students. This semester I am working with four Head’s Advisory Councils, one senior group, two ninth-grade groups, and one eighth-grade group, and we devoted our first monthly meetings, in September, to discussing smartphone use.

First, I believe these devices are leading to a decline in our students’ ability to hold spontaneous conversations with others, especially with people they are meeting for the first time. Lakeside students tell me that their phones have become “awkwardness avoidance” devices. When students feel uncomfortable in some situation they can just go to their phones. This may mean they develop fewer new relationships and may contribute to their feeling isolated from peers, faculty, and even family members. Awkward conversations and situations are part of life, and we miss out on a number of important experiences if we avoid them.

These devices can adversely affect our relationships with others. If a friend, faculty, or family member wants to have a serious conversation with a student, nothing will kill that conversation more effectively than one party having their phone out and even glancing down at it occasionally, much less actually responding to a text or phone call while the conversation is underway. Doing that essentially tells the other party, “You’re just not my priority right now.” Important breakthroughs in relationships are often preceded by awkward silences, and we need to let those silences play out.

In the September issue of The Atlantic author Jean M. Twenge calls this generation of students the most isolated in American history, content to stay at home on social media communicating virtually with friends rather than in person. I asked our students if they thought this was true. They told me that in some cases, yes, social media can degrade the quality of their friendships, and that it is easier to be friends online than in person. As one student put it, “I am more confident online.” Another shared that she would say things to friends online that she will not talk about with them when she sees them in person. Most interesting, a number of Lakeside students tell me that “friends” met online seldom lead to real friendships.

And, of course, there is the constant comparison with others. A number of Lakeside students recently characterized social media as in part a numbers game, with everyone trying to get the most number of likes for pictures they have posted. Students will even post at a time of day that will lead to the most likes and take down pictures that do not receive favorable enough reception! With Snap Map, Instagram, and Snapchat, students can follow in real time what their friends are doing and feel bad if they are left out. Students are, as a result, less connected with the moment they are in and ever so conscious of the moment they are not in.

Sherry Turkle, in her recent book “Reclaiming Conversation,” writes about the inability of students to be alone, noting that as a result they are often lonely, for they have to be OK with themselves not to be lonely. To be OK with ourselves, we need to spend some time thinking about who we are in this world. I just cannot stress enough that all of us need to set aside a few minutes a day for quiet reflection, to be alone with ourselves working on what we believe relative to the swirl of events around us. Please impress on your students the need to do this – just 10 minutes a day. We want Lakeside students to graduate with the ability to stop and assess the world from the perspective of their values, and if they never reflect on what they value, they will never develop this very important skill. And needless to say, this is a device-free 10 minutes.

Very significantly, the widespread use of social media can lead to a diminishment of empathy on the part of our students. As one eighth grade student said to me, “It is easier to be good or mean online.” Last year we had some students write some very negative things about others online, and when we had them read out loud what they had written, they were appalled at what they had written. While on their phones our students are not learning how to get along with others, to read body language, or to notice the emotional state of others. Nor are we in the adult community. Smartphone use is not leading to greater compassion and kindness; quite the opposite.

And finally, while there is limited research to date, I firmly believe that smartphone use is reducing our students’ attention span. Students can now skim along the surface of many ideas while never going deep on any of them. They can know a little about a lot but never read a book that informs them more thoroughly about a topic. The limited research on attention span that does exist, mentioned in a compelling article published Oct. 6 in The Guardian, indicates that even having a phone out on the table while listening to a lecture or writing a paper reduces attention and focus.

We are going to discuss our social media use at school and, working with students, see if we want to make any changes in how we currently approach it. More to come on this.

I also propose that parents and guardians consider placing some guidelines around the use of social media at home. The following are some ideas on how you might do that from Elaine Christensen, director of the Middle School; Ted Chen, assistant director of the Middle School, and me.

  1. Create regular and intentional time and space at home for students to be media free. Dinner time and bedtime would be two good places to start.
  2. Model the behavior you seek. The seniors told me recently that if adults do not do something themselves, the students are unlikely to do it.
  3. Hold off on getting personal devices for your students as long as you feel comfortable.
  4. Create individual rules for individual students.
  5. Actively teach engaged and polite interaction with other human beings. We will do the same at school!
  6. Help students learn perspective. What they see on social media does not reflect real life. Help them navigate the comparison culture and do not yourselves compare your student to other students.
  7. Be informed. Get informed. Be curious. Ask questions instead of making judgments. “How do you interpret that post?” “Why do you follow this account? What interests you about it?”
  8. Expect to be behind the technology curve compared to your student. I have met with 70 students to discuss the use of smartphones and social media, and 100 percent agree that even parents and guardians who think they get it, do not!
  9. Expect disagreement. We are all late to the game in recognizing this as an issue. Students have formed patterns of behavior.
  10. You own the devices and you control access to the wireless access.
  11. Treat the phone and access to social media as a privilege or rite of passage. Scaffold access.
  12. Stay informed. I recommend the following articles and book, for a start.

 

If you made it this far, thanks for reading, everyone! Feel free to send me your thoughts on this topic.

 

Cordially,

Bernie