Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: Reflections on screen time prompt Lenox policy reboot

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LENOX >> "Screenagers," a documentary about the risks of digital over-dosing screened at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School last week, drew a wealth of comments from more than 100 students and parents in attendance — and a pledge by Principal Michael Knybel to come up with new policies.

The hour-long film cited research showing that high schoolers average an astounding 6.5 hours a day on devices, and that 80 percent of video games contain violent content.

"We've seen an increased use, this year more than ever, not only in high school but more than ever in our lower grades," Knybel said.

School leaders are discussing "tightening up," he said, adding that teachers are "becoming immune to seeing the device in the hand because it becomes another appendage, it becomes so frequent. We really don't notice how important phones are to our kids."

Knybel was on a panel moderated by Dr. Claudia Gold, a local pediatrician, teen behavioral specialist and author.

Setting the stage, Superintendent Timothy Lee acknowledged that "as an educator, I'm grateful for the ways technology has allowed us to enliven instruction and bring the world into our classrooms." But he cited "less desirable outcomes, negative byproducts" — thus, the evening organized by the school district's Wellness Committee, with leadership by Dr. Lisa Nelson, a Lenox parent.

The engaged audience offered insights and poignant anecdotes, though the speakers might not want their names used here.

One parent praised "Screenagers" for focusing on "the grownups who have the same issues, it's not presented like a problem the kids have, it's facing all of us." She cited family rules requiring devices to be set aside by 9 or 10 p.m.

A dad emphasized his family's electronics-free meal prep and dinnertime — "it's built-in to our family structure to make sure the four of us are together, eat together and talk about the day together." He also cited kids' play dates that include a "check your phone at the door policy. We want them to be playing without electronics."

A mom in the auditorium offered another family guideline: One page of book-reading gets credit for two minutes on the iPad, "you have to read to earn your screen time."

Another parent urged electronics limits, such as "during sleepovers, all phones have to be checked in at 10 o'clock." Despite her concern over being labeled "the worst mom ever," the kids "gave me feedback the next day that it was so much better, we played games, we talked. But it's not easy, I get a lot of looks from their friends, 'Are you crazy?' "

A middle schooler recounted a family trip to visit friends in Vermont. She was disturbed to find that the kids there stayed up till 4 a.m. playing video games and then spent entire days immersed in online pursuits.

"Me and my sister would have nothing to do, we would just wander around, watching everyone do things that involved electronics, and they didn't get any social time at all or read books," the student said. She found that the parents in the house "just shrugged, it didn't really matter to them. I feel like the parents, too, should be more responsible on what their kids are doing."

Her remarks drew the most enthusiastic applause of the evening.

Younger kids in the audience commented favorably on family rules such as one hour daily screen-time limits except for "screen-free Sundays" as well as a ban on devices in bedrooms.

A high school student pointed to increasing use of phones in social activities and at school, "and it bums me out, to be honest."

Knybel, the principal, emphasized the need for student involvement in setting new rules "because that's what makes them stick, so they buy into it."

He explained that the school does not supply computers for student use outside the classroom.

But high schoolers can use devices such as laptops through the school's Wi-Fi connection, with filtering provided by the server. "If students get off task to where they're not supposed to be, our system is alerted and we can speak to those students and even take away the privilege of being on technology in our building," the principal pointed out.

Middle school students cannot use their phones under a strict policy allowing teachers to deal with violators by turning phones into the office. For high schoolers, there's a more relaxed approach since, as Knybel noted, college admissions and financial aid officers tend to call students during the day.

At Morris Elementary School, Principal Carolyn Boyce said, cellphones brought by students must be kept in lockers during the day. "There's no real need for a cellphone for the younger kids at the school," she emphasized.

About once a year, however, she deals with investigations stemming from bullying on social media, including inappropriate language and hurt feelings, "and it is happening as young as 9 years old." She cautioned that there can be no expectation of privacy on electronic devices.

A parent noted that his kids respond to reprimands about too much time on electronics by saying "you guys are much worse. It's really important, that is their perception. They see us as increasingly involved and dependent on electronic devices, whether for work or other practical stuff. And we're proud of it, we older folk are proud of what we can do. We have to be a little bit careful, maybe they're imitating us."

That point about adult immersion in electronics may have been the most important takeaway from this valuable evening. As Stephen Sondheim's memorable lyrics from "Into the Woods" warn:

Careful the things you do

Children will see and learn

Children may not obey, but children will listen

Children will look to you for which way to turn.

Contact Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com


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