Conscious unplugging
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Conscious unplugging

Local day schools suggest new rules about detaching from electronic media at home

More than 30 years ago, Hoots the Owl sang an eternal truth to “Sesame Street’s” Ernie. 

Ernie was trying to play the saxophone, but no jazz came out.  Just squeaks.

Hoots delivered the message in a rocking tune: “You’ve got to put down the duckie if you want to play the saxophone.” 

Hoots — as well as celebrities, including Paul Simon and Pete Seeger, who joined in the song — was talking about Ernie’s beloved companion, Rubber Duckie. 

But when you listen to the song today, it seems like it’s a call to put down your phone.  

Putting down the duckie — or the smartphone or any other electronic device — is a challenge for adults and children alike. To help the former help the latter, a group of Jewish day schools in Bergen County started the school year with a joint policy on devices and a video explaining it.

The policy has four points.

First, online devices are only for students in sixth grade and up. Second, parents should enforce rules that demand that their kids shut off their devices at least an hour before bedtime, and the devices should not be left in bedrooms overnight. Third, parents should set up and use parental controls and actively monitor their children’s screen usage. Finally, “Parents should model healthy screen usage for their children.”

“The response has been very positive,” Rabbi Chaim Hagler said. Rabbi Hagler is head of school of Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, one of the half dozen schools that signed on to the policy. “For many parents it’s uncharted waters. They appreciate the guidance.

“It’s something that crosses beyond your home,” he said. “When children are on these devices they’re interacting with friends. It’s easier if there are community-wide guidelines. That makes it a lot more comfortable for parents.”

Some of these new community policies have always been the policy in the Hagler house.

Rabbi Chaim Hagler

“My children have never taken their devices to their bedrooms,” Rabbi Hagler said. “My 10th-grader, my youngest and the only one still at home, still has a spot outside his bedroom where he charges his phone.” His son also has parental controls on his phone “that lock down certain websites, that give us a reading of where he’s going to. Anything he’s visited we can see. We’ve been using those type of things for years.”

Rabbi Hagler said that he and his colleagues see the effects on students when they are allowed unlimited access to their phones. “It’s impacting their sleep,” he said. “It’s difficult to go to sleep when your device is pinging the entire time. There are chats going on and you want to be part of it. Students will tell us, ‘I got up in the middle of the night because someone posted something and I heard my phone next to my bed.’

“And academically, it’s having an impact on students.”

It’s not just the lost sleep, though.

“There are a lot of social implications of children constantly interacting with each other. All people are less inhibited in what they communicate online than what they communicate face to face. We see that as adults. As adults, hopefully we can process that. We can understand what we’re reading. For children, it’s harder to process that. 

“If we can say that there’s a point where everyone is shutting down, that we have these 12 hours where you don’t have to worry about it, that helps put things back as well.” 

The multi-school initiative grew out of regular meetings, initiated years ago by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, with the heads of the various schools.

“We meet a few times over the course of the year,” Rabbi Saul Zucker, head of school of Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus, said. “We talk about our pressing issues; things as mundane as busing and as philosophical as how we can work to improve prayer and minyanim in our schools.

In a scene from a video prepared by a group of Jewish day schools in Bergen County, a mother fails to give full attention to her daughter as she texts on her smartphone.

“This past year we all noticed that the issue of student use of devices is becoming more and more of a challenging issue. Not so much in school, because all the schools have policies about what devices students may use in school and when. 

“Two things concerned us. 

“One was the extent to which students use, rely on, and are affected by the devices they use, cell phones as well as smart phones as well as internet-connected devices. We talked about the time they devote to it, the potential for cyberbullying, the viewing of material that is just not suitable or appropriate for students and sometimes for any human beings.

“The second alarming thing is the age at which this begins. They’re getting younger and younger in terms of their device usage.

“We found that there are students, I’m not exaggerating now, who can be up and awake until midnight, even one o’clock in the morning, being online, communicating in WhatsApp groups and chat rooms. Sometimes parents don’t have a clue; sometimes they do but feel they’re not in a position to control it.

“Parents were coming to us and saying it’s very hard for us to say no to our kids. Their kids don’t want to be the only ones not using a device. They say, ‘I don’t want to be left out.’ They say curtailed use of the devices will make them social pariahs.

“This is common for all of us. So we decided, here’s an opportunity. If all of us get together and present a united front and statement, not just to our parents but to the whole community, saying we have a problem, it’s time to come together and set up appropriate guidelines and parameters, then it has a shot of really being listened to.

“This started in the late spring. We talked throughout the summer. We did a bunch of research. We didn’t want to unrealistic or ineffective. We looked at the guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics. We talked with different groups that did research across the country. We found what would be effective, what would be realistic, then we kind of translated it for the Bergen County community, stressing that these are minimal guidelines.”

And to Rabbi Zucker’s surprise, the guidelines didn’t meet with any pushback from parents.

Rabbi Saul Zucker

“On the contrary, I got numerous emails and phone calls from parents saying, ‘Oh my God, thank you!” he said. “My child in the fourth or fifth grade has been pushing me for a phone and you’ve given me the opportunity to say no, this is the Bergen County yeshiva day school guidelines.”

Has anyone applied the guidelines to take away a phone they had already given to a child not yet in sixth grade?

“I haven’t heard of that,” Rabbi Zucker said. “If a parent were to call me and ask me that question, I would encourage it, recognizing that it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle. Really, they need to have a heart-to-heart talk with the child, explaining what some of the challenges are and what it means to do things at an age-appropriate level. We don’t all start off life doing everything that’s ever done at every age. There are age guidelines and limitations for different things. You can’t get a driver’s license at age 12.

“There’s a lot of good that’s involved in technology, there’s a world of culture and knowledge that’s been accessible in a way it hasn’t been before. But there’s a price to pay. If you stop and think back to your youth, there was probably a period you look back on as a time of innocence, a time of free play and engagement with our friends. There’s a certain sweetness to that. 

“That age of innocence is becoming more and more limited. Face-to-face conversations, going for a walk, playing in the playground, that interaction and connectivity is becoming curtailed because of the isolated engagement — that’s a bit of an oxymoron — of digital contact instead of real meaningful contact. That’s a shame.”

Steve Freedman is the new head of school of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford. “I’m glad the schools are taking a stance,” he said. “We consider this a high priority.”

Steve Freedman

Mr. Freedman joined Schechter this school year; until then, he led the Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit. Schechter normally takes part in the meetings of the day school heads, but neither he nor his predecessor, Ruth Gafni, were around while the subject was discussed. “Had I been in town when they were doing this we would be included,” he said.

“Limiting screen time is an important value. We’re working to help children manage it. One of the things we’re really emphasizing this year in the middle school is doing things human beings do without technology. They’re off technology for lunch and recess unless they’re specifically working with a teacher on a project.

“I don’t think parents necessarily think through the implications of giving smart devices to children, especially at a younger age. Parents have an obligation to check regularly to see what their children are using. We allow our children access to social media before they’re old enough to use it responsibly. We given it to our children and don’t monitor it.

“There’s a national program called Wait Till Eight that advocates not giving the smart devices until kids are in the eighth grade. That train has left the station for so many.

“There are parents who have convinced themselves, maybe legitimately, that younger children need to connect with them. There are phones and smart watches that are used just as phones, that can’t get on the internet and access social media.”

He said that children should be using their devices in the family’s public spaces. “It shouldn’t be in the bedroom at night. It’s too tempting.”

A video prepared by Jewish day schools shows a sleeping student with a smartphone propped on the pillow.

As for his own kids, “I’m thrilled that when this came on the scene, my youngest kids were teenagers. We missed it.

“I’m not pretending this is easy,” Mr. Freedman said. “But we can’t ignore it. We can’t always be friends with our children. If our children are angry with us for taking a stance for something that’s better for them emotionally, okay, they don’t have to like us all the time. They always love us.”

At the Moriah School in Englewood, the desire to teach kids how to put down their phones has led to a new project: a monthly Unplugged Day, where a homework hiatus will encourage students and their families to spend time together the old-fashioned way: Talking to each other.

“Parents say that the normal family noise, whether laughing or crying or arguing, is replaced by silence because everyone is on their screen,” Yael Krumerman, the school’s psychologist, said.

Yael Krumerman and Tamar Edell

“We’re partnering with the LetGrow project to help families really understand the value of playtime and independence. We’ll charge children to do something new at home on these Unplugged days and bring it back to school.”

“It’s a global issue,” Tamar Edell, Moriah’s lower school counselor, said. “We created this program thinking about the problems of parents who use technology and how that impacts the family. I was at the park yesterday with my kids. Every single parent there was on the phone.

Last March, Moriah brought Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair to Englewood to speak. Dr. Steiner-Adair is the author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.”

“One thing she focused on was us as the adults,” Ms. Krumerman said. “What message do we send our children when we are busy texting when they talk to us? She said it really has to start with us modeling the right behavior to the children. This Unplugged program creates an opportunity for all of us in the family unit to put all the devices away and do something together.”

“We’re providing families with different suggestions of what they can do,” Ms. Edell said. “Things like baking, going for a walk, taking your kids to the park, having a family dinner together. Doing the really basic things that we’ve kind of forgotten about.”

The monthly Unplugged program is only part of the broader goal of changing how families relate to devices.

“Parents will have to develop realistic plans for all the family members,” Ms. Krumerman said. “Everyone will understand the rules of electronic use. Not at the dinner table. Not in the bedroom. Every family will have to talk about it.

“The harder part is to persevere. It’s hard to have that conflict with your children on a daily basis. Many parents give up and say they have no patience to deal with it now. If you know it’s important, you have to persevere,” she said.

“It’s also about making the parents aware,” Ms. Edell said. “We are not always aware of our constant need to be on the phone.”

Shouldn’t a monthly unplugging be superfluous, given that in Moriah’s modern Orthodox community people don’t use electrical devices of any sort on Shabbat?

“I don’t think so,” Ms. Edell said. “I’ve actually heard of kids who are so addicted they’ll take their phones to synagogue or pull it out in their room.”

“We’re fortunate we have Shabbat,” Ms. Kuperman said. “We have this break from being connected, and it’s wonderful. The difference is there is something about a weekday routine. The children come home, they have their afterschool activities, they have their homework — the family falls into a routine that is very stressful. One of the goals is not only to disconnect, but to remove the daily stress. When we break the routine we allow the brain to be more creative.”

The Yavneh Academy in Paramus started the school year with a talk by Janell Burley Hofmann, author of “iRules: What Every Tech-Healthy Family Needs to Know About Selfies, Sexting, Gaming and Growing Up.” The talk drew around 200 people.

“She started by saying don’t be delusional,” said one parent of Yavneh students who attended the event. The parent did not want to be identified for this story. “The more you say you wish there is no technology, the less prepared they are to deal with it.”

Ms. Hofmann advised parents to develop written guidelines on technology use with their children, and review and update them once a season, the parent said. She also advised communicating to your children that you’re there for them if they see something disturbing on the internet.

She urged parents to think about the values they want for their family.

When one father in the audience argued against children being allowed to play Fortnite, Ms. Hofmann defended the popular online game.

“That’s a value decision,” she said. “Some have a problem with the killing. But when you weigh it with the other stuff, like the social element — I see kids playing Fortnite with other kids in school, and it can give them enhanced prestige and friendships.”

Ms. Hofmann said she doesn’t see a contradiction between talking about establishing trust with your children and having a filter on their phones.

“If the tech companies are telling us not to use the technology before age 13, we should listen to them,” Nir Eyal said. Mr. Eyal’s book, “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life,” was published last week.

Mr. Eyal has taught at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and Institute of Design. His first book, “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,” showed how smaller companies could adopt the techniques that tech giants such as Google and Facebook use.

“I don’t think children need to be on social media before high school,” he said. “Why let them use it if the companies say not to?

“We should also have more recognition around technology causing issues around sleep. We need to remove any kind of triggers to using technology or screens when kids need to be in bed and getting sleep.”

“Indistractable” is aimed at adults, with only one chapter addressing the problems of kids using technology. One easy-to-implement suggestion in his book: Turn off all your phone’s notifications. Why should you be disturbed because YouTube wants you to watch a video and its associated advertisements?

The book challenges readers to address the internal motivations for distraction as well as the external distractions, so you can focus on what matters.

Or, to paraphrase “Sesame Street,” you’ve got to put down the iPhone if you want to play the saxophone.

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