The Foundation for a Meaningful Life
Kindergarten - Grade 9 in Southborough, MA
Fay Magazine: Fall-Winter 2018

Lower School Update: Honorable Conduct in a Digital World

by Daintry Duffy Zaterka '88
In the Lower School, teachers are implementing a program to help students be more mindful of their screen use.
A recent study from Common Sense Media found that American tweens (ages 8-12 years old) spend an average of almost six hours a day consuming entertainment media, which includes television, movies, gaming, Internet surfing, texting, social media, and music. In the teenage years, that number jumps to almost nine hours a day. And that’s on top of screen time required for school or homework.

While Lower School students at Fay are not allowed to have personal devices during the school day, outside of school they are as vulnerable to an increasingly digital world as any other kid. Fifth and sixth grade at Fay is also a unique academic transition point, as the amount of work that students complete online and through Google Classroom slowly increases. Once students join Upper School in seventh grade, they bring their own devices from home.

This year, Head of Lower School Lainie Schuster decided to start the year with Fay’s fifth and sixth graders by tackling the issue of life in a digital world head-on. In September, students in grades five and six watched the documentary
Screenagers, which examines the impact of screen time on kids’ development as well as the challenges of parenting in a digital world. After watching the film, students gathered in groups to ask questions, talk about their own screen use, and discuss healthy habits. Parents had the opportunity to attend an evening screening of the film, followed by a discussion.

Learning to Self-Monitor

Encouraging personal accountability as technology use increases is critically important. Lainie and Head of School Rob Gustavson sat down with fifth and sixth graders early in the fall to talk about how technology use relates to academic integrity and the importance of using technology as a tool rather than a distraction. This year, students in grades five and six may only sign out a Chromebook if they have a specific assignment that requires it, and the “tool or distraction?” message seems to be sinking in. In conversations about workload, sixth graders recently noted that digital homework seems to take longer to complete than traditional written work. Whether that is due to distraction or logistics, students are developing a growing awareness of screen time and its potential impact. 

Students are also actively learning about the importance of how they present themselves and communicate online. In their Digital Literacy classes with Technology and Design teacher Andrew Shirley, fifth and sixth graders are learning about the benefits and challenges of conveying a digital message. Fifth graders are creating graphic short stories based on experiences from their lives, and sixth graders are studying and creating digital ads.

“Everything that you say online has a message that could be interpreted in the way that you want or in a way that you didn’t intend,” says Andrew. “As these students get closer to becoming social media users, their online voices become much bigger than they realize, so we are doing projects where they need to think carefully about their messages.”

To drive this point home, Andrew challenged his sixth graders to interpret the meaning of an emoji-laden text message. Students found that they were able to decode a single message in a variety of ways, exploring what made the message so ambiguous and talking about how to correct it.

Encouraging Healthy Habits

Fifth and sixth graders have also been tackling the topic of technology use in Wellness Class, where they meet weekly in discussion groups. Students began the year by listing the devices they use and situations where technology use has caused problems for them personally or in their social group. Units later in the year will focus on cyberbullying in fifth grade and social media in sixth grade, where students will explore hypothetical scenarios.

“Wellness is a great place for these conversations because when students or teacher bring up an issue, we can shift gears and dive into it right away,” says Wellness Department Chair Heidi Qua. Students have also been discussing the negative impact of phones and other devices on social behavior, particularly a person’s ability to be an active listener. “Many students recounted situations where they were trying to communicate with parents who were not fully listening because they were looking at a phone or computer screen,” Heidi notes.

On a positive note, Heidi has noticed that Lower School students are really getting the message about the disruptive effect that screen time can have on sleep. At Fay, boarding student devices are collected at 9:30 p.m. every night, and in Lower School Lainie recommends that devices are collected at 8:30 p.m. “We want the kids to climb into bed and read,” she says.

The hope is that by encouraging thoughtful discussion about screen time and its impact, Fay’s fifth and sixth graders will develop a healthier relationship with technology that will carry them through Upper School and beyond. “We are encouraging kids to respond to technology with integrity, honesty, and openness,” says Lainie. “That is what’s going to make them good students and good citizens, and it’s why we need to start these conversations early.”

Tips for Achieving Balance in a Digital World
1. Computers should be set up in shared spaces where parents can be aware of the content children are consuming.
2. Devices should be put away during homework and reading time.
3. Whether it’s a written contract or a verbal agreement, parents need to set clear guidelines and limits on technology use and screen time.
4. Explore apps and devices that can help you enforce time limits on technology use. Collect or disable devices before bedtime.
5. Make technology use a regular topic of conversation with children.
6.Model healthy technology use for your child and hold yourself accountable to the same rules.

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