In September of 2011, I started working at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco. For the next decade, I watched at the front lines the impact of the Smartphone, selfies and social media apps on high school students. I saw firsthand the ways social interactions shifted, sleep hours decreased and anxiety increased. The research and data that began to emerge around the risks and addiction connected to teenage social media and smartphone use confirmed my own anecdotal observations.
One day, in an admissions conversation, an incoming ninth grade parent said to me, “My child is addicted to her smartphone. What are you going to do about that? How are you going to help her?” It was at this moment that I realized how helpless parents were feeling, and how deeply they needed support and education. I started thinking about these issues as a communal challenge and part of an ecosystem that required a collaborative effort.
The digital landscape blurs geographic and physical boundaries of community, and this complexifies the question of where a school can or should exercise its jurisdiction. Covid really concretized how certain behaviors of individuals outside of the school walls can impact the community as a whole. So too with technology: One kid’s exposure impacts others. The communal impact requires us to establish an expectation around family practices. While different families will approach this issue in different ways, we still must take seriously our responsibility to the school community to educate and empower families to make informed decisions. Having shared language, communal learning and a community norm better facilitates this collaboration.
Meeting New Challenges
Moving into a leadership position at Oakland Hebrew Day School, a BK-8 Modern Orthodox school in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was excited to see all the ways OHDS had already been thinking about and taking these issues seriously. Even in the middle school, students were not allowed to have cellphones or smart watches out during the school day, and device use was only permitted for class specific instruction and with direct adult supervision. Starting in second grade, the health and wellness curriculum included digital citizenship components, and the school had run several adult education programs around parenting kids and technology.
Unfortunately, the world we had created within our building was not immune to the impact of student access to social media and smartphones outside our walls. In just one year, we navigated seventh graders quoting content creators who espouse violent and misogynist worldviews, third graders who happened upon a pornography site during a playdate, and internet bullying. We began to increase our correspondence and conversations with parents to make them more aware of the digital landscape.
In one conversation with a parent, they said, “Given what's out there, I believe concerns about tznius (modesty) and middot (values) are far more important in the context of social media than they are in a school dress code or even classroom behavior.” This statement catalyzed our administration to really reflect on the behaviors, both in school and out of school, that we expect of our families. We felt that the responsibility of the school to be making clear, research-based recommendations around social media and device use was our responsibility.
Working with Parents
Our journey to bringing the conversation of communal norms around technology use has been rooted in conversations with parents. The families are, after all, what make up the community, and the process of developing our Technology Position Statement would be meaningless without buy-in from the school community.
Our first step was an in-person meeting with a small group of parents who were either technology professionals, mental health providers, or our local Modern Orthodox rabbis. Through this initial meeting, we drafted an initial version of our statement, which I then shared with a focus group of another cross-grade group of parents from across the school community. I requested feedback focused on the following questions:
- Does this read as supportive and in partnership with families?
- Does this feel like something you’d be able to get behind and support?
- Are there frustrations or concerns that emerge for you while reading this?
- Are these things missing that should be included?
- Are there things that should be excluded?
Parents expressed appreciation at having been brought into this process. The feedback we received helped us clarify our language, better communicating a commitment to partnership with families and fostering a stronger sense of accountability to the community. After another revision of the position statement, we shared the draft with the entire parent community and elicited more feedback. Much of our parent feedback brought to light requests for more research links and the need for parental support in learning how to better educate our children around their technology use.
Making A Statement
Our Position Statement begins from a place of partnership: “Oakland Hebrew Day School believes in partnering with parents in the task of building a healthy support structure for our OHDS student community around technology use.” Most importantly, it is explicit that the goal of making this statement is “to empower parents to work together and to support each other in adhering to research-based practices that support the health and wellbeing not only of our individual children, but of our community as a whole.” And finally, we explain why it is our place to make such a statement: “Our job…as a school community, is to acknowledge the challenges and provide as many tools and education as possible in order that families can make informed and empowered decisions. We view this document as a guide with the hope that we can start to steward members of our community towards best practices.”
Before articulating the “Best-Practices Recommendations,” we state the school’s own commitment to staying up to date on the research to support students with their technology use in healthy and safe ways and to facilitate regular parent education on these topics to better facilitate open and honest conversations among the parent community. In this way, families understand that this is rooted in partnership that requires ongoing efforts from both families and the school.
Here are the five best practices in our family handbook that we have asked parents to strive towards:
- Families will do their best to delay giving their children smartphones, and abide by a minimum age threshold of the sixth grade (11-12 years old).
- Parents will become digital mentors who help their children learn how to navigate meaningful online interactions and develop “family media plans.”
- Parents will have active oversight over their children’s online activities, enacting parental controls and boundaries.
- Families will adhere to recommended age requirements for the existing social media platforms that you allow children to use.
- Families will be communicating their own needs and ask questions about what might be allowed at someone else’s house during a playdate.
Through our feedback processes, we confirmed that our statement reflects a strong expression of the community. With the ever-changing landscape of technology’s role in our lives, we anticipate this document being a living covenant, responding to both the needs of the community and the changes that technology brings. Most important, this statement will serve as an anchor and catalyst for communal conversations and learning.