Screenagers - Who is Watching What?

Last night, The Hopkinton School District, The Hopkinton PTA and The Beech Hill School co-sponsored the screening of the film Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age, by Dr. Delany Ruston.  The film explores the way in which the children of today are growing up in a world where technology is ubiquitous.  In general, the film sends out a warning call to parents and educators to think about the ramifications of technology – from smartphones to video games to all things digital, as this generation is at risk of being consumed by technology.

Running about one hour in length, the film left me with significantly more questions than answers.  While the focus of the film is technology, issues associated with gender, socio-economics, and a host of other subjects are commingled throughout.  It will take several weeks for me to sort out the many thoughts that this movie stimulated.

From the moment the movie ended, I became very aware of my smart phone in my blazer pocket.  While every urge was telling me to check my e-mail, I tried to resist.  In the film, kids pointed out that parents were on their devices all the time.  This struck a nerve, as I have heard my own children chide me for how frequently I check my phone.  “But I have to be able to respond to important e-mails and texts,” I often rationalize.  I am just not that important, and the communications can wait.

In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Ruston was asked if she felt that parents checking their devices often was a problem, especially when kids are being asked to moderate their use, and she offered the following: “That’s right. Kids don’t want to be held to a higher standard than their parents, and that’s a big issue.”  While I agree with the sentiment about hypocrisy and standards in general, I think that Dr. Ruston missed an even larger point.  Your kids are watching – and they want to be like you.  While kids might not express this all the time, especially at 13 or 14 years of age, they are extremely aware of the way that their parents are leading their own lives.  How parents and teachers model appropriate use of technology is very important.

At school, I tell my students they may not have cell phones out during class. There are times, however, while observing a class, that I will grab my phone and quickly check my e-mail. Despite what I ask of my students, they are witnessing my behaviors.  I can imagine the students are thinking - if the Head of School is doing it, it must be appropriate adult behavior.  Thus, they will at some point think that it is okay to be on a phone in a class.  This is a mixed message, and one that I have never intended to send.  Research shows that one cannot “multitask,” yet I was modeling that to be an adult, one must do just that.  It is very clear to me now, that what I model becomes behavior that is normalized and, for some kids, behavior to aspire to.    In the end, the hypocrisy is the least of the issues of adults, rather it is the normalization, or even lionization, of a behavior that we must guard against.

Last night was a good wakeup call for me.  I need to take inventory of my digital habits, and consider the messages that I might unknowingly be transmitting to my children, my students, and those in my life.  As a parent, how I choose to use my technology is not a choice that affects me alone, and that message came through loud and clear in Screenagers.

The Author of the Post:

Rick JohnsonThe Head of School at The Beech Hill School, has worked for over 20 years in independent school education.  In addition to his work at The Beech Hill School, Rick coaches youth sports and is active in the Concord, New Hampshire community.