Preschool Program at The Baldwin School of Puerto Rico

Headlines with James Nelligan

“So, your kids must love the iPad?” I asked Mr. Jobs, trying to change the subject. The company’s first tablet was just hitting the shelves. “They haven’t used it,” he told me. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

                                            -  Nick Bilton, NY Times article, Sept. 10, 2014



Each summer, I co-lead rigorous outdoor trips to some of the world’s greatest natural destinations.  In an average year, fifteen students, ages 14-17, will follow me dozens of miles out into the wild, far from cellular towers, streaming TV, on-line gaming, and social media.  Our best trips are always those wherein we fully disconnect from the world, and in doing so, reconnect with ourselves. This year was once such year, a journey to the glorious Boundary Waters. 

On day one, we lost cellular signal even before we loaded our canoes and paddled out.  Once out, we remained off-line for fourteen days.  After a day or so in the backcountry, students began to change.  They talked with each other, in substantive and profound ways. Their conversations, in their canoes, around the campfire, and in their tents at night, were intentional, thoughtful, insightful and reflective. Yes, we did ask them to think about big important matters in their lives, and we did lead a number of structured conversations. More often than not, they kept these conversations going all on their own, and initiated discussions around crucial questions concerning their own values and goals.  By the end of our journey, our students lamented the outsized role of technology and social media in their lives. They made bold proclamations about how they would reshape and limit their relationship with their personal technologies, most especially their phones. It was as if a weight had been lifted.

And then we drove down the mountain, and cellular signal returned, and all their new-found commitments to personal health and balance were hastily abandoned...

I’ve spent the last number of months thinking deeply about technology with regards to learning and socialization.  There is no denying the near limitless power of our technologies to inform, create and connect.  But there is also a dark side to our dependency on technology that mirrors what, in a clinical sense, would easily pass for addiction. That many of us, young and old, cannot make it through a meal without checking our phones, become visibly anxious when separated from our technologies, and spend more time “communicating” in decontextualized bursts than in person, are sign(s) enough that something has to give.

And then there is what Harvard professor and author Carrie James (Disconnected, 2014, MIT Press) describes as the “ethics gap”—the chasm between consequence thinking, moral thinking, and personal ethics that allows otherwise good kids (and good adults for that matter) to live distinct, synchronous social and virtual lives, and to engage in petty, callous, discriminatory, or cruel behavior in the shadowy unmonitored spaces between ones and zeroes. And it’s not just former governors that behave in this way. Frankly, it is our majority, whether we recognize it or not. Children, easily influenced, easily socialized, still developing their critical and moral capacities, are particularly susceptible to the “new normal” for public and media discourse, norms perpetuated and given tacit approval by adults.  Based on my discussions with more than thirty school leaders at the annual summer retreat of the Academy of International School Heads (AISH), this is what is keeping our profession up at night. 

As a school, we’re working to develop meaningful and measured responses to these continuously evolving challenges.  And there is no way we can do it alone. I challenge you to closely monitor your child(ren)’s relationship with technology. Does your child(ren) have an over-reliance on tech-based stimulus? Do they retreat from socialization and physical activity? Are they secretive about their online activities? Are they preoccupied with social media? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, an intervention is in order. Furthermore, keep having those all-important dinner time conversations about digital citizenship, and reaffirm your family values.

Finally, as easy as it is to hand over a cell phone to a child as a means of distraction, know that the consequences of this act may be far reaching. A growing body of scientific literature is shedding light on the negative impacts of too much technology during critical periods of human development.  The American Academy of Pediatrics, among others, has issued guidelines for technology usage and exposure for both small children and teens. All are


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