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The key is making sure that children understand the difference between harmful screen time and quality screen time, one observer says.
When students at Stevens High School in Claremont, New Hampshire, arrive at school this year, they must immediately surrender use of their phones.
First, they must turn their phones off, the student handbook states. Then, they must slip the phones into a “Yondr pouch”: a small fabric bag with a magnetic lock that can only be opened with a special device.
The students must keep their phones in their backpacks, nestled and locked. Only at the end of the day can they unlock the pouches and use the phones again
Three months into the year, Stevens High School principal Chris Pratt says the change has already “improved the entire climate” of the school.”
“There’s been a huge increase in students’ interactions with each other in the halls (and) in a cafeteria as well as a reduction in bullying harassment via the telephones,” Pratt wrote in an email. “We’ve also seen a huge increase in time on instruction.”
It’s a new and relatively unique approach to phone usage in school. And it comes as a number of educational organizations and New Hampshire state departments are taking a serious look at improving social media literacy.
This year, the New Hampshire Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services have crafted a curriculum to teach better social media practices to K-12 students.
The state’s Department of Justice deployed a survey to allow parents to weigh in on their concerns about social media. The same department has filed a lawsuit against Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, alleging that the company is violating the state’s consumer protection laws by making products addictive to children.
Meanwhile, a number of state agencies have collaborated on a website aiming to give parents ideas for how to engage with their child’s social media use and find healthy alternative activities.
“…The importance of educating parents, guardians, and children about the negative impacts that use of social media platforms can have on a person’s mental health is paramount,” Gov. Chris Sununu wrote in an executive order in June, which jumpstarted many of the state’s activities.
To experts in the field, the initiatives are promising. But the pros and cons of children’s social media use are complex with no simple answers, they warn.
“That search for independence is a natural part of adolescence,” said Heather Inyart, executive director of Media Power Youth, a Manchester-based organization that aims to promote media literacy. “…How can we embrace that to have these healthy discussions and for them to be critical and look at what media is available out there?”
Growing Parental Concerns
This summer, the Department of Justice issued a call-out to parents.
“In recent years, there has been an increased focus on the correlation between the development of serious mental health disorders by minors and time spent on social media,” a notice on the department’s website read.
The notice said eliminating those health effects is a “top priority” for the department. And it asked parents to submit any relevant experiences to the department via email.
“A wide variety of responses” came in from New Hampshire educators and parents, according to department spokesman Michael Garrity. Adults reported students showing mood changes, difficulty learning in class, addiction, bullying, harassment, anxiety, and depression, Garrity said in an email.
“People told us stories of their kids being exposed to illicit substances and sexualized material,” Garrity wrote. “They also shared the difficulties of keeping kids off of social media platforms, especially when friends are on the platforms, and about how easily kids are able to circumvent age restrictions on the platforms.”
He added: “Some parents shared that taking social media or internet access away from their kids made their kids happier and more pleasant to be around.”
The department folded the responses into its broader social media investigation, which it eventually used to file a lawsuit against Meta in Merrimack County Superior Court.
Sununu’s executive order directed the creation of the K-12 curriculum, the website, and a state-led social media campaign to educate residents “on the harms” of the technology.
A New Approach for Schools
Responding to the concerns, the Department of Education has released a 32-lesson curriculum on social media use available to any K-12 school.
The lessons are targeted to specific grade levels. First and second graders learn about “online meanness” and how it is important to have time with no devices.
Elementary-aged students up to fifth grade receive lessons centered on cyber bullying, privacy, and a media balance. Those lessons are fine tuned for middle schoolers. By high school, the courses focus on fighting social media addiction, the negative health effects of excessive screen time, and how to act with empathy.
The instruction includes videos, quizzes, and ideas for family exercises to accompany the courses. While the curricula are not mandatory for schools, the department said they could supplement existing instruction.
The curricula are based in part on materials from Common Sense Education, a subgroup of Common Sense Media, a national nonprofit organization that focuses on helping parents navigate content directed at their kids. The state also partnered with Media Power Youth.
The state has released resources for parents, too: It launched a website that includes a number of possible family activities that don’t require devices.
Among the ideas: a visit to a state park, free observatory shows at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, a painting day on an old white sheet, and a stop at a pick-your-own fruit farm.
The Search for Quality Screen Time
Experts say combating the side effects of social media and technology will require a multi-tiered effort between parents, schools, and students.
To Leah Plunkett, author of the book “Sharenthood” and a faculty member at Harvard Law School, the state’s efforts this year are helpful. But fundamental for any approach, Plunkett said in an interview, is for parents to establish trust with their children.
Sometimes parents can be overwhelmed by the monumental task of monitoring and controlling what their child does online, especially with emerging apps and platforms like TikTok, Plunkett said.
Those parents “should, perhaps counterintuitively, back away from the tech toolkit and go back to an old fashioned brick-and-mortar toolkit of spending offline time hanging out with and talking with their children, doing things with their children that don’t involve devices, and building trust with their children,” Plunkett said.
Plunkett said establishing some limits — like collecting phones before dinner — can work for families.
And she encouraged parents to be aware of the influencers their children follow, and to share them.
When parents approach Inyart at Media Power Youth, they are often torn between wanting to limit their children’s social media use and wanting to keep their children familiar with the technology that could determine their future jobs, Inyart said.
Inyart said parents should explore age-appropriate limits on devices and social media. But she also added they should also acknowledge that the technology is here and their children will use it — whether they like it or not.
The key, she said, is making sure that children understand the difference between harmful screen time and quality screen time.
“We define quality screen time as screen time where you have to absorb information, process information, and make a decision and take action based on that information,” Inyart said.
Teachers, meanwhile, should focus their efforts on first giving students healthy communication skills, and root those lessons in technology. For instance, students can learn how to make persuasive arguments online, similar to the ways in which they might be asked to make those arguments in a school paper, she said.
“Those are things that students are already doing at pretty young ages in the type of tech and platforms that they’re using,” she said.
Learning media literacy and how to analyze and spot misinformation is also a critical for students today, Inyart said — and an area in which she says schools can have a positive effect.
And above all, Inyart argued, lessons in empathy should infuse any lessons around technology.
“Lots of what we’re talking about through social media are relationship skills. In social media, what we’re doing is we’re harnessing a student’s interest in technology to teach them these skills that kind of transcend that.”
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