A prin­ci­pal’s ex­per­i­ment: Pay kids to un­plug

Times Colonist - - Life - GAIL ROSENBLUM

Diana Smith is grow­ing so con­cerned about the po­ten­tial per­ils of tech­nol­ogy on kids’ psy­ches and be­hav­ior that she de­vised a re­fresh­ing so­lu­tion this sum­mer. Call it pay-per-not-view. Smith, prin­ci­pal at the Wash­ing­ton Latin Public Char­ter School in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., chal­lenged her eighth- and ninth-grade stu­dents to put down their phones, lap­tops, tablets and video game con­soles for the 11 Tues­days of sum­mer.

Who­ever gave ’em up suc­cess­fully, con­firmed in writ­ing by two adult tes­ti­monies, would get $100 US.

Smith funded the deal per­son­ally, by can­cel­ing her own cable TV ser­vice. Of 160 stu­dents, 78 at­tempted the chal­lenge and 38 suc­ceeded.

Smith is $3,400 poorer (four stu­dents de­clined the cash) but richer in hope. “I’ve had kids say that they re­al­ize that they can al­ways rely on their own thoughts,” Smith said. “They can think more. They know what it feels like now to not have to reach for the phone.”

Smith’s story was shared by me­dia around the coun­try. It’s a rare par­ent of a tween or teen who doesn’t worry about kids’ uberusage of so­cial me­dia, par­tic­u­larly its in­tox­i­cat­ing but capri­cious ego ful­fill­ment via likes and shares.

It’s also a rare kid who doesn’t know on some level that he or she is too re­liant, bor­der­ing on ad­dicted. It’s just so hard to shut it off. And par­ents are hardly the best role mod­els for ab­sti­nence. In fact, Smith heard from many par­ents who said they could not do the chal­lenge, “or didn’t even want to try.”

She said, “They use work as an ex­cuse.”

While Wash­ing­ton Latin serves stu­dents in grades five through 12, Smith cooked up the plan in June specif­i­cally for mid­dleschool­ers. First, she hoped to lessen “the drama that the girls en­gage in over the phones. Now it’s with gaso­line.”

Her other big con­cern is sleep, some­thing these stu­dents are not get­ting.

“The boys and girls text each other at 3 or 4 in the morn­ing,” she said, “and they walk in here and they can’t func­tion.”

Smith ex­plained that each stu­dent needed to as­sume re­spon­si­bil­ity for fig­ur­ing out the chal­lenges posed by not hav­ing ac­cess to screens for 24 hours ev­ery Tues­day from June 13 to Aug. 22.

“For ex­am­ple,” she ex­plained, “if you have Latin sum­mer school and a video is as­signed in class Tues­day for the next day, a stu­dent could wake up early to watch that video. If your friends in­vite you to the movies on Tues­day, you need to take a rain check.”

She did al­low for a few ex­cep­tions, such as re­ceiv­ing calls from par­ents or guardians. But call a friend to chat? “Nope, that knocks you out.” The idea, she ex­plained, “is for you to dis­ci­pline your­self. It is like fast­ing … to feel and un­der­stand what hap­pens to your life when you go without. Live without the screens for a day a week and see what hap­pens.” Guess what? A lot hap­pened. They baked and read and hung out with friends.

“One fam­ily had a huge water fight,” Smith said. “Back to the 1950s.”

Smith knew that of­fer­ing cash for good be­hav­ior would raise some eye­brows.

“My fac­ulty’s mouths were open,” she said. “I’m al­ways lec­tur­ing them about not brib­ing the stu­dents. But I don’t know what else would work. I’m not sure any­thing else would work. I had to go ex­treme.”

Even Melinda Gates un­der­stands that. Gates, a for­mer de­vel­oper at Mi­crosoft and co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion, re­cently checked in with her own strug­gles around rais­ing 21st-cen­tury teens.

In a thought­ful es­say, she wrote that “phone apps aren’t good or bad in them­selves, but they can ex­ac­er­bate the dif­fi­cul­ties of grow­ing up.”

Par­ents also might want to take a look at Screenagers, a 2016 film by De­laney Rus­ton. Rus­ton, a Stan­ford Univer­sity-trained physi­cian and doc­u­men­tary film­maker, grew in­ter­ested in this is­sue when buy­ing a smart­phone for her daugh­ter.

She soon learned that the typ­i­cal kid spends 6 1⁄ 2 hours a day look­ing at screens — boys of­ten many hours more. And while kids boast, cor­rectly, of be­ing skilled at mul­ti­task­ing, they might not un­der­stand that they’re rarely do­ing any of those tasks well.

One teen in Screenagers frets about her in­abil­ity to con­cen­trate when her teacher is in­struct­ing. An­other said she turns off her data when she stud­ies, so she “can’t go on the in­ter­net and I can’t get text mes­sages.”

Maybe it’s wis­est to ex­plain to our kids (calmly) that we all ben­e­fit from tech­nol­ogy, but a “yes/and” strat­egy is best, for the whole fam­ily. Yes, tech­nol­ogy. And fresh air. Yes, Snapchat. And face-to-face con­ver­sa­tions.

How­ever you feel about pay­ing kids to do some­thing that’s good for them, Smith’s phi­los­o­phy of baby steps might work.

Power off one day a week. Or one hour a day. Or dur­ing din­ner.

In Screenagers, a group of teens agrees to place their cell­phones on the table at a restau­rant. Who­ever grabs his or her phone first to check mes­sages has to pick up the tab. Just think about all the burg­ers and fries a $100 in­fu­sion from Smith could buy them.


It's a rare par­ent of a teen who doesn’t worry about kids’ uber-us­age of so­cial me­dia.

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