Ever since an “Unplugged day” was held at our school in 2016, I’ve been on a mission to better understand how technology impacts our lives. The benefits of the day were obvious, but the willingness to go back to the technology was so strong. Since then, I’ve read several books on the topic like Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World and Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, and Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter. I’ve spoken with experienced teachers at my school and inquired about how they manage their time. Most of them never open their work computer once home, but many still struggle with the urge to check their phone. A portion of my year was spent writing articles for Oi Vietnam on this subject. Hopefully I was able to convince one or two readers that their phone and social media consumption is not conducive to a healthy lifestyle. I used my other time delving further into technology education to learn more about this growing addiction.
I don’t think many people realize the impact of these digital interruptions until they are exposed to something like the Screenagers Movie: Growing up in the digital age. This year we hosted a Screenagers viewing at our school. It changed a lot of teachers’ minds about the devices in the halls. We had an overwhelming vote to rid our school of phones next year. We received many complaints from parents about how they can’t get their kids off the phone. A major concern of Vietnamese parents is how to enforce these phone rules once at home. We often hear, “my child just won’t get off the phone.” Another parent told me, “I tell them to do what their teacher says and get off the phone. Then he holds up his iPad and says to me, ‘This is not a phone.’ What am I supposed to do?” Parents and teachers often say this to me as they hold their phone in their hand and check it the first moment they can. The first step is to model what you want to see. Next, I recommend parents make a “contract” with their child at the start of the school year. It should provide rewards for following the rules and penalties for breaking your terms of agreement. The contract should be for both children and parents. Additionally, the child should have some influence on the rules. Both you and your child should sign the contract and do your best to uphold it. That means you too, dad!.
This year ISHCMC-American Academy took it a step further. We wanted to teach our children what life was like without these devices. Many kids from the “igeneration” (those born post millennium) never spent a day without some form of technology in their hands. We decided to hold an “Away For A Day” at our school. This is a day that promotes wellbeing, conversation, face-to-face interaction, and just plain old fashioned fun without phones. An enthusiastic group of teachers who shared this passion convinced the staff to also put their phones away, too. Some students were scared of a day without their device. Others didn’t know how to put their phones away. Many didn’t know what to do to replace this time they spent on their phone. The feeling of anxiety was as prevalent as an exam day.
There were a few students who tried not to follow the rules, but overall the day was a huge success. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the amount of female students playing games during lunch. Our team provided the students with options like jump ropes, and life size Connect Four. Our English department banded together to offer a poetry café and reading time in the library. Boys were encouraged to bring a book to school and surprisingly many of them enjoyed it just as much as the gaming they do on other days. A room devoted entirely to board games encourage problem solving and conversation skills. Sports were offered as usual, and teachers minimized tech in the classroom.
The conclusion that we came to was that school is better without the phones. Students look up when they walk the halls. They interact with each other on their free time. They focus on building relationships in front of them instead of the accumulating followers across the globe. As humans we have this innate desire to socialize. When we feel bored we pick up their phones to connect with someone. The key is to provide your child (and yourself) with an alternative to the phone. It sounds so simple, but we should be encouraging them to embrace this time they have off the device. When given an alternative to fill that void, they will jump at the chance. Play a game with them, read a book together, have a board game night, remove the phone from the dinner table and just talk. Keep the phone out of reach. It’s a powerful urge to check our devices. An urge we are just not sure has the long term rewards we want it to have. If students and parents keep working at building these healthy skills they’ll find they, too, have a healthier relationship together.
Bill Hanrahan is a Technology Education Coach & Social Studies Teacher. He is a Syracuse University adjunct instructor for psychology and entrepreneurship and is convinced Seinfeld is the best show there ever was or will be.