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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

“But all my friends are doing it.”

Heard that one before? So many parents grapple with their children’s social and recreational use of technology.

Arguments lead to frustration and helplessness for all of us. We struggle daily, knowing we should be limiting and monitoring our children’s use of electronic devices, and yet we feel powerless. We are educated adults, but have this feeling we have entered the unknown—after all, no generation has had to raise kids with devices, social media and recreational technology. It is pretty clear how much havoc social media and recreational technology wreaks on the lives of our children.

We have all read numerous articles about the dangers of social media and technology. And, despite our knowledge, we don’t really know with certainty what our children are viewing on Snapchat or who they are interacting with on Fortnite, and we have lost track of how much time they are spending in front of a screen.

Data shows that students feel more lonely because of social media—not more connected. Research also shows that children who spend lots of time using recreational technology have higher levels of anxiety and anger management issues. Recently, the World Health Organization declared that “gaming disorder” or video game addiction is a mental health disorder. This only serves to elevate and bolster our concerns. Because of their “addiction,” our children are not getting the exercise that they need and that many of us enjoyed as children.

We continuously worry about the inappropriate pictures and words that our children may be accessing all too often in the online world that they now inhabit. We see from our own use of Facebook and Instagram how addictive social media can be and worry that our children don’t know how to—and cannot—break this addiction. Have you ever tried to get your child to do his or her homework or join the dinner table when he or she is playing an online game? No doubt your frustration builds as you find yourself competing for your child’s attention with an electronic device.

You probably are asking, “What can we do about it? It’s already bad and only getting worse. How do we fix this?”

We are worried. But, we don’t know how to handle the daily use of technology in our children’s lives. We also wonder whether our own personal use of our phones—even to simply respond to an email and text—is influencing our children to think that it’s acceptable to have our electronic devices at our fingertips.

I have news for you. If you find yourself arguing with your children over these issues, you are not alone. Studies have shown that 30 percent of adults and children have daily disagreements about the use of screen time at home! We recognize the negative trends occurring with our youth today but are concerned over taking steps and implementing rules that could isolate our children socially. Do I really want my child to be the only one without a phone or the only one who can not communicate regularly with their friends through social media?

I believe that we are not addressing this issue effectively. I know of many parents who have healthy perspectives on these issues, and yet they continue to battle with their children to set limits and controls over their use of technology. But these parents are all fighting this fight as individuals. And that is why we are losing the battle.

We need to understand that the reason social media and recreational technology is so powerful and has such a strong allure is precisely that it creates a strong sense of community. In setting limitations and stricter guidelines for our children as individuals we are taking away that sense of community from them, making them feel isolated and alone. Our children feel like they are being targeted by us and that we are punishing them by taking away their social outlets and relationships. This can be very hard, lonely and upsetting for a child.

There is a far more effective way to address these issues: as a community. Working together as a community to change the ground rules about usage of technology and social media will allow us to wean our children off the social media community and replace it with a healthier community.

This is the approach we have taken at the Moriah School. We created a social media committee, tasked with coming up with solutions to address these challenges. One of the first things we did was to survey our parent body. We were not surprised to find that the vast majority of our parents have the same concerns and would like to address these issues.

Our first goal was to deal with challenges that occur during school hours. This was a relatively simple first step as we already teach our students digital literacy and safe internet practices, utilize strong filters on the school devices our students use and regularly monitor the websites they visit.

Our first active step towards our goal was to eliminate the usage of phones in school. We established a new policy that prohibited students in fifth grade and below from bringing a cell phone to school even if it remains in their bag unused the entire day. There is no reason for children this age to have a cell phone in school. We also encouraged middle school students not to bring a phone to school at all. If, however, they or their parents felt a need to bring a phone, we require them to lease a Yondr pouch. Yondr is a company dedicated to creating phone-free spaces. They use a patented system where students place their phone in a pouch and lock it. Once locked, it can only be unlocked by special devices held by the school.

We have seen positive results since implementing this new cell phone policy. We rarely find a child surreptitiously using a phone during school hours, an issue that was far more common before the policy existed. We have also found that many children are not bringing phones to school because of the cell phone-free school zone policy. This has led to enhanced student interaction. I remember being outside during dismissal before the policy existed. Most students would be intensely focused on their phones catching up on posts that they missed during the day. Today during dismissal, students can actually be found socializing and interacting with each other since many of them do not have phones at this time!

The reason that this first step was successful is because we addressed it as a community. We had parent buy-in from the outset and established rules that applied to everyone.

Our committee’s next step is far more ambitious but also far more important. We are beginning to work on an initiative to create communal norms that will allow us as a school and community to take firm control of our children’s social media usage. The guidelines will be developed from parent feedback and we will use the feedback to create recommendations for the recreational usage of technology and social media, which we hope will be followed and implemented by all parents. This will help foster a sense of community and both parents and children alike will know that their peers and friends are following the same guidelines.

We will be kicking off this initiative with an important lecture. Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair of Harvard University will be speaking on “Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.” Dr. Steiner-Adair is an expert and author of an award-winning book on this topic. She will discuss her research in this area and offer practical suggestions to achieve greater understanding, authority and confidence, as parents engage with the tech revolution unfolding in their living rooms. This lecture will take place on Thursday, November 15, at 7:30 p.m. at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood and is open to the entire community. We encourage parents of children of all ages to attend this event.

We hope that, as a community, we can start to establish a safe and healthy balance for our families and children so no one has to struggle alone.

Rabbi Daniel Alter is head of school at The Moriah School.