Disrupting Disruptive Technology

written by: Chris Hancock, Assistant Head of School for Student Life

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The Tipping Point

 Any student of American history can point to dozens of significant dates, battles, events, or tragedies that changed the trajectory of a nation. The Declaration of Independence, The Emancipation Proclamation, Pearl Harbor, Brown v. Board of Education, and 9/11 surely come to mind. What about 2012? Does anything in that year ring a bell? Its importance rests not in predictions of Earth colliding with Nibiru, the end of the Mayan Long Count Calendar, or any other eschatological beliefs. 2012 marked a subtle, but critical moment in American culture – particularly for teens. It was the year that the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50%. Coupled with the parallel rise of social media like Instagram and Twitter, the landscape for young children and teens reached a tipping point that year.

Internet, smartphones, and Ipads are omnipresent for today’s kids. While many earlier generations may have grown up with access to some of these, even Millennials did not have constant, 24/7 access to a phone in hand. Our current youth willingly spend countless hours on all of these devices, often choosing screen time connection over in-person interactions. Thus, a natural line of thought would be they are happier doing so. Yet, the research is clear. Teens who spend more time than average on screens are more likely to express unhappiness, loneliness, high anxiety, and symptoms of depression, while those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to report being happy.

Setting Boundries and Rules
In 2018 EHS desired to change the paradigm for its students. It believed that clearer boundaries and rules around screen time would positively affect each student’s social development, sleep, homework completion, community involvement, focus in the classroom, empathy toward classmates, and overall mental health. The adoption of a Cell Phone Policy was the first, critical step. After 12 months of parent discussions, student surveys, and community-wide input, EHS’s idea was simple, “Leave the phone in your dorm. It will be there when you are finished classes for the day.” Restrictions on possession and use during the academic day provided an environment for all students to attend to their academic pursuits and personal relationships while also learning to manage their reflexive need for technology.

The Digital Detox
The early results of this shift have been exciting. Anecdotally, reports from teachers about students looking exhausted or not focused on tasks in class have nearly disappeared. Statistically, homework completion has increased, club and athletic participation has increased, and major disciplinary issues have decreased. Average ACT test scores have even improved. They may not all be linked to the limiting of screen time distractions, but a teacher recently wrote, “The absence of cell phones in class is blessed. Everyone's looking at everyone else more; everyone is more completely in the room, and there's a calmness and focus that I now remember from my early years here.” Students have offered their own opinions on the change as well, “Kids are talking to each other more,” “There is less drama and people are far less distracted,” and, “The school feels more connected.” EHS’s digital detox for 7 hours each day has been beneficial for all.

The Cell Phone Policy was not the only substantive change that led EHS on this positive path. It was aided by changes in permissions for younger students to possess video game consoles. Limitations, particularly around bedtime, have provided greater opportunities for students to settle down into a good night’s sleep. Together, these changes have provided a catalyst for exciting, healthy change among EHS students.

Connections and Self-Worth
More importantly, fewer students this academic year have reported high anxiety or struggle with depression. The limited use of phones and screens have not only aided their involvement in activities and the world around them, it has helped them become comfortable with stillness. They are learning how using a phone to cope with boredom only heightens these emotions and, while perhaps frightening at first, being alone with their thoughts is not as scary as it may seem. Taking in the smell of the crisp winter air while walking to breakfast, observing the daily progress of the STEM center building project on the way to class, or simply being present in lunchtime conversation with friends are examples of observable changes to student behavior. It has led to a healthier sense of connection and self-worth.

The changes EHS made are not without challenges, nor are they cure-alls. Nevertheless, it has helped recalibrate students’ relationship with their phones, themselves, and a world overrun with demands to be in front of a screen. Some call it a digital detox. EHS prefers to be seen as simply disrupting disruptive technology.
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Learning Diversity is a blog hosted by Eagle Hill School where educators, students, and other members of the LD community regularly contribute posts and critical essays about learning and living in spaces that privilege the inevitability of human diversity.

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