How is Wooster School thinking about the challenges for young people being created by cell phones and the internet, and what are the school’s plans to start doing more to help?

Good question. Incredibly important topic. Very complex situation and problem.

Over the last several years, the leadership team, faculty members, and parents at Wooster have had numerous conversations about cell phone and screen use and how they are impacting the personal development. learning, and daily lives of our children and ourselves. Many of us also have read deeply, watched, and listened to many resources in order to better understand the realities of the current situation, and to think about the future. The issues are complex and evolving, involving human behavior, learning, brain functioning, health, and personal well-being. The impacts of this phenomenon are also far-reaching, with effects emerging that are being felt far beyond our school. I will do my best to focus my answers to what we feel is essential and immediate to the future of our students and families at Wooster School.

Understanding the Phenomenon

Cell phones, and more broadly, the internet, are not inherently evil. Much good has come from both and the potential for future progress in this regard is something that we should all be hopeful about. That said, the rapid rise of these technologies in our lives, and how they have changed our behaviors, is almost too much for us to fully comprehend. Many of us remember the days when we did not have an internet or cell phones, but we have a hard time imagining how we managed to get by, given how ubiquitous they are in our daily lives today.

The history of this rapid expansion and deep integration is both fascinating and troubling, but will have to be a topic for another time. For the time being, we’ve curated a list of resources to help support the learning of all community members, which you can find here. I would encourage everyone to deepen their learning, particularly about the broader societal contexts.

Defining the Current Situation and Issues
  1. Nearly everyone has a phone, including all of the adults on campus. The vast majority of our students in grades 6 - 12 carry a cell phone on their person all day, every day. Many of our Lower School students also come to school with cell phones.
  2. Phones, and screens via laptops, provide access to the internet, and thereby applications designed to feed the user a constant and ever-changing stream of information, entertainment, and social media access.
  3. Phones and screens are designed to draw our attention and distract us from whatever other thing on which we might be trying to focus. Even when the phone gets our attention, the applications within the phone are designed to continue to distract our attention and move us quickly from point to point, so as to provide maximal exposure to as many advertising and purchasing opportunities as possible. Think “click-bait” and the “Attention Economy.”
  4. We, and our children, are likely spending an increasing amount of time interacting with the world — and each other — through our phones every day.
  5. A growing body of scientific research and data -- and if we are able to focus long enough to notice, our own observations -- tell us that our increasing interactions with phones and the internet are profoundly changing our behaviors, particularly how we take in information, make decisions, and interact with other humans. Deeper research is beginning to reveal that our increased interactions may actually be changing the architecture of our brains and how they work.
  6. As a school, we are primarily concerned with several major effects resulting from how cell phones and applications work, and how we and our students interact with them, effects which we feel are having a negative impact on our development as learners and humans overall. These effects are a distraction, diminishing or degraded personal human interaction, overallocation of time to trivial and/or troubling internet information, and diminishing wellbeing, including stress, anxiety, and sleep deprivation or disruption.
Distraction and Learning

Studies have shown, and our personal experience tells us, that when we are in physical possession of our phones we are in a near-constant state of distraction. The level of distraction continuously fluctuates between low to high. We are being beeped, chimed, and buzzed with regularity, and find ourselves checking constantly. Even when our phones are muted, studies show that we will self-interrupt regularly to think about checking, and what we might be missing while not staying connected. This phenomenon even has a name now: Fear of Missing Out or FOMO.

In a learning environment, this state of distraction -- and the impact when students act on this strong impulse by actually checking their phones -- has several obvious impacts on progress. Learning, deep learning in particular, requires that learners be self-regulating in an environment which is free enough from distraction to allow them to focus their mental capacity on the task at hand. Additionally, teachers and students co-construct the learning environment, which requires that they attend to each other in real time. Studies have shown that the presence of a phone, which has been “persuasively designed” to influence behavior and be a distraction machine, can seriously undermine attempts to focus, engage, or connect. This is true in both school-based and home learning environments, and in any personal and/or social situation in which we might find ourselves.

The deleterious impact of distraction on learning and social interaction has been proven by a growing body of brain research and data, which is the product of both behavioral observation, experimentation, and brain scanning. We know that our brains are most effective at deeper learning when single-tasking, which requires focus. When we attempt to multi-task, or even single task with frequent switching (task switching), our effectiveness drops precipitously. Obviously, there is a common misperception that we can learn to better multi-task, and therefore mitigate the effects on our brain and learning. This is not physiologically possible. When we multitask we are simply being less effective at more things.

Human Interaction

Part of Wooster School’s promise to our students and parents, and a foundational belief that we hold about learning, is based upon the idea that developing the capacity to engage other people in personal, academic, and ultimately, professional contexts is integral to future individual success and fulfillment. Because they are powerful distractors, phones frequently prevent or interrupt human interaction. Phones can also act as a kind of defense mechanism for those who might be reluctant to engage. How many of us have found ourselves in a situation in which we are uncomfortable because we don’t know anyone, or have only tenuous personal connections, and have therefore “connected” with our phones rather than attempting to connect with the humans present? Further, we frequently default to our phones when interacting with other humans, privileging the virtual over the personal. Research, data, and our own experience tells us that a conversation and/or personal interaction is profoundly different -- in many important ways, than an email or text message. Anthropological, sociological, and behavioral research would even suggest that our ability to communicate a full range of emotions and ideas using all of the physical tools at our command -- voice, eyes, hands, body -- is a profound part of what makes us human, and separates us from other species. Part of our job at Wooster School is to help students understand these differences, and how to make intelligent decisions about the application of technology in personal and professional relationships.

Internet Time and Content

A 2015 study by Common Sense Media revealed that on average, our teenagers are spending 9 hours a day on their phones or interacting with the internet. As adults, we are not far behind. While our interactions can be in the service of working, taking in information, and/or learning, much of the time is simply spent down the “rabbit hole” with which most of us are familiar. What starts as a “quick” check of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram leads to an hour or more of clicking and surfing. Because our brains, particularly younger ones, are more attuned to things that are perceived as potentially “dangerous,” the content becomes edgier and more concerning each day. And unlike television, there is no regulation and increasingly, there are no filters.

We now also know that our internet surfing is not the innocent wandering of a curious mind, but a manipulation of our natural information-seeking tendencies designed to expose us to as much internet advertising as possible. More deeply nefarious is the reality that the manipulation now includes our biases, fears, and prejudices, which are all being leveraged in the service of profit and in many instances, cultural and political influence. We, and our children are the targets in this corporate “attention economy.” Our attention is being tracked, manipulated, and sold to the highest bidder. The longer-term global implications of this process are beginning to emerge, and will be a subject of later conversation at Wooster School. See the index at the end of this letter for suggested reading on this subject.

Health and Wellbeing

A growing body of scientific and medical research tells us that increasing phone and internet exposure can be harmful to our health and wellbeing. The slow withdrawal from more frequent human connection and the ubiquity of dishonest messaging about social status, body types, and behavioral norms should be enough to have us all worrying about the role that cell phones are playing in identity development in young people. These and other influences can lead to other issues involving sleep deprivation, stress, anxiety, social isolation and relationship-building.

The Context of School

Time for a deep breath. In thinking about how we can begin to be more proactive in partnering with students and parents on ways to better understand and control the influence and impact of phones and the internet on our lives, we’ve identified three primary areas of focus:

What is attention, and how is it related to learning and how our brains work?

What are the physiological, emotional, and psychological implications for humans in a digital culture?

What are habits we can develop to be healthy and productive while still enjoying the benefits of digital technology in our lives?

While the three clearly overlap in many ways, they are designed to help us develop and implement initiatives, programs, and policies that can help us make progress and improve the lives of our students and ourselves. Our ultimate goal is to awaken students to the realities and implications of our digital culture, and to deepen their understanding of the physiological, behavioral, and social effects of phone and internet use. Ultimately, we want to help them learn behaviors that can help mitigate the negative impact of those effects. Our other major goal is partnership. Most adults are caught up in the same digital maelstrom, so these are everyone’s problems. If we work together to raise our awareness and work toward a deeper understanding, our chances of success in helping ourselves and our children to develop healthy and effective digital habits will go up exponentially.

What’s Next?

When looked at in the context of corporations, government, schools, culture, and our future as a nation, the digital revolution and its impacts on humans should create concerns among all of us that are truly existential. We include this observation not to be hysterical, but because as a school, we have a responsibility to act when we recognize that our children are being victimized and harmed. That is what is currently happening. We also have a responsibility to admit when as adults, we’ve been complicit in creating something that is growing out of our control, and muster the courage to begin to work toward change in our own community.

As such, at Wooster School, we are taking several steps this year to begin a more intentional process of learning and action going forward. First, our faculty are forming into Literature Circles, a number of which are reading material relevant to these issues. At the student level, we are going to increase the number of Days of Reflection this year to six -- 2 per trimester -- and intend to frame them around a master course that we will conduct with all Upper School students called Understanding Ourselves: An Introduction to the Brain, Behavior, and Human Learning, which is designed to build awareness and understanding of the health, behavioral, thinking and learning implications of our digital culture. Over time, we will also be helping students to make connections between the habits that they are developing to control their digital environment and the choices that they have relative to their life’s journey.

We feel strongly that simply creating rules for our students, and ourselves, is necessary but insufficient to address the deeper issues. We all need to be made aware of the concepts and scientific research that is emerging, and then engage in deeper learning before truly understanding the implications. When our students begin to understand, we are confident that will then be on the road to being able to self-regulate and create habits designed to preserve, and perhaps even strengthen, their own health, wellness, and learning potential. Progress will require the inculcation of these habits across their lives -- not just at school, but at home as well. This is important learning for life beyond Wooster School.

Reading and Resources

If you are interested in raising your own awareness and deepening your understanding of digital culture, commerce, and its implications, the leadership team here would suggest that you start by engaging with some of the resources that we’ve curated for this purpose. We’ve put them into broad categories, but acknowledge that much of the content, particularly as it applies to the science of how the brain works, cuts across many of the titles.

Reading and Resources

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