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High school to host film, discussion on digital wellness

January 15, 2018
LITTLETON—Thanks to digital devices and social media, today's youth are tuned in like never before: to politics, to popular culture, and to each other. They're uniquely well-informed—and extremely vulnerable to a slate of mental health and social problems that simply didn't exist a generation ago. Teachers, parents, and the kids themselves are all trying to find the balance between tuning in and switching off.

Littleton High School will host a film and public forum on finding that balance. The film is "Screenagers," and the forum is a chance for parents, educators, and employers to share their experiences, anxieties, and best practices about managing screen-time. The filmmaker, Delaney Ruston, is a mother of two who turned her camera on real stories of struggling with screens: good students turned lax, social media gone wrong, the whole gamut of potential problems.

It's a particularly difficult age to have 24/7 access to the world: middle and high school students don't always see the impact of their words and actions on others—or themselves, says High School Principal Jennifer Carbonneau.

"Our kids are not always responsible with screens," she says.

That has implications in and beyond the classroom and school yard.

When she was a kid, Carbonneau said, people said hurtful things, and they stung—but they were limited in time and space. Words slung in anger could fade and be forgotten, and bullying was an in-person affair. Now, anything posted to social media is instantaneous and permanent.

Foolish posts could also harm future job prospects: Carbonneau says more and more employers are looking at social media to form judgments about a candidate's character. Students don't always realize that stupid posts become part of their permanent record.

Littleton isn't afraid of using device for good: the high school has a chrome book for every student, and Carbonneau says that digital systems can vastly expand the ability to teach and learn.

Students can collaborate in unprecedented ways, building documents and presentations together at a distance. They can debate each other in online discussions, and give each other peer feedback on their drafts. That's something Carbonneau, a former classroom teacher, really loves.

There are some protections in place: teachers can use a 'guardian' system to monitor the online activity of a whole classroom at a time. The school network also filters out some of the worst threats.

But of course, the whole point of the internet is to open up possibilities, not shut them out. Carbboneau wants students to learn what makes a good source, for instance. The only way for them to learn that is to get their feet wet, so to speak.

"It's really an issue with our whole society," Carbonneau points out, "because we have adults posting without awareness too."

The film will present the latest understanding of how screens interact with young brains, and give parents tools to understand and control their children's screen-age years.

Carbonneau doesn't pretend to have all the answers, but she is on the front lines. Now and then she's taken away her daughter's phone—she's junior higher who loves social media. Her younger brother is a grade behind, and just got his first gaming system: Carbonneau plans to limit him to two hours a day.

Parents fall on spectrum: those who forbid eliminate screens altogether, those who let their kids run digitally free, and everyone in between.

Most parents know about the threats their kids might face in cyberspace: bullying, predators, misinformation, flame wars. It can be overwhelming to try and protect them all the time, especially when most of their screen-time is not monitored. It's also a question of the relationship between parent and screenager, Carbonneau says: "As a parent, you need to know when to trust, and when to question."

She says it's a balance every family, and every school, struggles with. She hopes the screening will spark a discussion among parents about how they're managing the problem, and how everyone can help each other do better.

To the absolutist anti-device folks, she cautions that kids need to learn how to handle themselves in cyberspace: the internet isn't going away, and it's becoming more and more important for life after school.

Turning it all off isn't an option, she said, adding that "It's our responsibility to teach them to use it in a healthy and productive way."

She encourages anyone with a stake in the issue to attend the screening and discussion, especially business owners who use social media in their work or to screen potential employees. The broader range of voice on the issue, the better solutions the community will have.

The date is Jan. 25, the High School cafeteria, 6:30 to 8 p.m.

Martin Lord Osman
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Salmon Press
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