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Guest Column: The challenge of raising ‘screenagers’

As a mother and as an educator, I am regularly thinking, reading, discussing and keeping up to speed on the ever-evolving topics of child rearing, child development and educational practice, in particular amid our changing social landscape. Naturally, that means lately I’m thinking a lot about raising children in the digital age. Throughout motherhood and my career as an educator, I have always worked on what it looks like to foster good citizens in the world. And now, more than ever, I am focusing on what it looks like to foster good citizens in the digital world.

My concerns reached a critical point just a few weeks ago at my middle son’s basketball game. I was sitting in the bleachers, watching as the teams rallied back and forth, one team outplaying the other significantly. I watched the teams navigate the disparity and deftly work with a player with disabilities. This individual bounced the ball high, screamed and flapped his arms and the game played on. Coaches and players alike worked admirably with this boy, and helped him be a part of a team. 

Meanwhile, on the sidelines, older players for an upcoming game looked on. I did a double take, as I noticed two of the boys were holding their phones up and videotaping the game. I thought it odd; I bounced up out of my seat, walked over to them and asked what they were up to. They quickly stumbled for words, one of them saying he was recording the game for fun because he remembered being that age once, too. Naturally, I was skeptical and I asked them to put their phones away, adding that unless their brother or sister were out there, they really had no business recording this game. I knew what they were up to. They knew what they were up to. The recording would be used to exploit and mock, thrown up on Snapchat or TikTok for likes and laughs, all at the expense of these younger kids on the court.

At a minimum, this act was a breach of privacy and in very poor taste. But can we really blame these kids? Have we adequately prepared our adolescents about how to apply the values of good citizenship to their digital lives? As parents, we hand our adolescents a phone — at an age when their prefrontal cortex is shifting and decision-making skills are not at their optimal performance level — and we expect them to use it appropriately without ever teaching them.

In an era when online mistreatment of others has practically become commonplace, if not acceptable, we must double down as parents and educators about how to teach children to apply the values we espouse to their online lives. We must continue to strive to help our children be good people. And that means helping them learn to be good people online too.

As a step toward addressing this at Peconic Community School, we have launched a Digital Citizenship Initiative, within which we aim to teach our community as a whole how to appropriately use technology and how to uphold the same principles that guide us in life in the digital landscape. We are conducting regular discussion groups with our students regarding the benefits and pitfalls of screens and devices. Among the many resources we are consulting are digital citizenship lessons from Common Sense Media, which can be found online and are free. We are also hosting a viewing of “Screenagers” for the community at large, followed by a discussion. The following day we will share the film with our fourth- through sixth-graders.

PCS has also implemented a policy that prohibits the use of personal devices in school, collecting our students’ devices at the beginning of the day and returning them at the end. This eliminates the risk and temptation for students to be on phones when they shouldn’t and don’t need to be. I urge my colleagues at neighboring schools to rethink their own cellphone policies in school during class time — even through high school — and consider whether the risks might in fact outweigh the benefits. Let’s give our kids the break they need and deserve from their devices for their six-hour school day. It will benefit not only their academic success, but their social-emotional well being as well. And curriculum in all schools should include lessons in digital responsibility. Technology is here to stay and is a tool with many benefits and advantages for adults and young people alike. But its very power is what makes our responsibility to prepare and supervise our children that much more urgent.

We spend our children’s early years helping them learn how to share, how to be kind, how to use good manners and how to help others. We now need to teach our kids how to apply these very same ideas to their digital life. We owe it to them to help them learn these skills and we owe it to society at large.

“Screenagers” will be shown at Peconic Community School on Thursday, March 26, at 7 p.m. It is open to the community and free for all.

Ms. Casey is a founder of and teacher at Peconic Community School in Aquebogue.