Should Kids Use Phone on Break?

Learning pods are supposed to replace socialization and school….is the phone adding distance?

Young children studying in a pod  like classroom during Covid virus. At each desk there is  computer and desks are 6' apart.
Daily Herald, photo by John Starks 8/25/2020

Dear Ms Smartphone: Should kids use their phones during a break? This fall my daughter is in a learning pod with seven other middle-school students. It seems to be going well, and I think that she will be prepared for high school next year. The issue I have is that the instructors allow the pod kids to take out their phones during the breaks between classes. There are multiple breaks during the shortened school day. In our normal school, the kids cannot use their phone until the end of the day. Do you think I should say anything?  Sharin, Berkeley

Dear Sharin: These are interesting times and I am glad that you were able to locate an instructional pod for your student. For pods, the equity issues have been substantial, along with access to technology and the Internet. You raise yet another important issue about these makeshift classrooms.

If the students use computers for most of their lessons, I would argue that they need a break from the screen. It is important that they refresh their eyes, refresh their minds, and seek out personal interactions, at a six foot distance, of course.  Taking a short stroll or engaging in some physical exercise would be a great alternative to spending more time with online games or search. 

WhAt is the Attraction?

Second, you need to question what students do online, the online sites they visit, between classes. Since they are in seventh or eighth grade, question whether they are spending time on social media like Tik-Tok or SnapChat. You might look at your daughter’s posts, if you have access. Looking over her “digital shoulder” and getting access is vital at this age. But, it begins with a collaborative discussion and her perspective on her podmates, free-time, and how the pod functions during breaks. 

According to Pew Research 33% of teens note that it is simply easier to connect with a friend online than to attempt connecting with them physically. There are two instructional things that parents must do: one is to show kids how to disconnect in order to connect, and second, we need to teach the tools of digital literacy. Is this pod facilitating either?

Speak Up!

So, you might take this up directly with the lead instructor- ask for some time “after class” to discuss media use. You mentioned that there was more than one instructor, so they might have inconsistent enforcement or rules. Most likely you and the other parents that hired these teachers first agreed on the curriculum.  So, also reach out to the other parents in your pod. And, hopefully you will all be back in your regular classroom soon.

Is Handwriting Dead?

A page from a kid's primer of cursive writing- with the letters a to z and the numbers 1 to 10.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Is Handwriting Dead? My fifth grader is doing OK with remote school and keeps up to date with classwork. He spends most of the day on the computer and then plays video games in the evening. My worry is that there is no opportunity to turn in assignments written by hand. So, his handwriting (penmanship) is suffering. When I went to elementary school the nuns made me stay after class and corrected my hand-writing until it looked satisfactory (to them). My son thinks this is funny, but I do not think his bad hand writing is funny at all. Jemma, Los Angeles

Dear Jemma, There are some skills that are enhanced by computer learning but penmanship is not one of them. Sitting at a computer all day make us faster on the keyboard, but hand writing skills atrophy. An older story in The Washington Post, reports that until the 1970s penmanship was taught as a separate subject and up till sixth grade children spent at least two hours a week on it. Today, when schools teach hand writing it is frequently for 10 minutes or less a day, and formal instruction ends after third grade. It’s a conundrum: many kids never learn cursive writing and printing can be too slow for them to get their thoughts on paper.

There may be ways that you can intervene as a parent but it will take two of you to carry this off. What I mean is that you, as a parent, will need to pickup a pencil and paper, sometimes in lieu of your phone, and show how enjoyable and useful it is to write by hand. You son is going to model the media behavior he sees at home, from reading books and newspapers, to spending free time on the phone or computer. 

Get Fun!

First, I would read up on the pros and cons of different handwriting techniques: print,  cursive or a speed-combo called the Barchowsky method. Go with what your son feels comfortable with. Then, visit a stationery store together and pick out the pen and pencils that feel special to your son. The right pen, with a comfortable grip, makes a difference in how handwriting looks on the page.  And, kids seem to enjoy the newest pens that have erasable ink. 

The second step is to set a daily routine with a fun time to write. Mom can be  the “tooth fairy” and leave a small gift (a candy bar, a poem, a new pen).   Then, your son has to keep a hand-written journal for the “tooth fairy.” He can write about the gifting, how he feels about that day’s cache. If this seems contrived, then create an “appreciation journal”- talk through what you are both grateful for each day, and have him write a few sentences about it in a lined notebook. 

Get Literate Too!

There is a parallel activity if you want to add a lesson on media literacy. Configure his phone so that there is always paper and pencil nearby- perhaps put the smartphone, the notebook and a pen in a see-through carry case. After using the phone and putting it back in the case, he writes a few sentences in the notebook about the browsing habit: what he saw or looked at, and how it made him feel (e.g. happy, sad, indifferent).  You can customize the page to be a timesheet with entries. 

The idea is that he works on his hand-writing as he also develops a mindful, attentive awareness towards browsing the Internet. I would not stress over the particular words or sentences he writes, since your focus is on just getting him to use the pen more and the keyboard less.

Family Setup Good Idea?

@dearsmartphone
(this is not a picture of the actual watch)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I’d like to give my eight year old more independence since he stays indoors all day for home-schooling. But, I also think he is too young to get his own phone. If he goes on his bike or walks to the nearby store I want to know he gets there safely and does not get into trouble. There are not many kids his age in our neighborhood  to hang out with so I worry when he is out and about.  Kelly, Tiburon

Dear Kelly: It’s funny how we now conflate independence with phones.  There are probably less dangers out there than you imagine, but it comes back to your son and his level of maturity.  Back in 2011, a Mom/journalist in NYC started a movement called “free range kids.” The idea is that kids are allowed to play outside or go alone on short trips alone so they learn to be creative and self-sufficient and solve problems if they arise. The founders stress that this is not the same  as “Permissive Parenting.”

Optimized for Kids and…

Depending how you feel about phones and the cost of adding a new phone line, there is a tech solution. Apple just introduced a gadget  called “Family Setup.” It’s is a phone- watch Apple says that is optimized for younger children and seniors!  If you want to know your son’s whereabouts, or grandma’s, that will display on your iphone map. You can  also call or text them from your phone. That sounds like it would do the job.

 Apple’s Family Setup is not the first device to provide a geofence and parental controls (see link for Android) but it will give you more features. The promo material says you can send cash via Apple Pay, so imagine sending your son to the store to pick up a few things on your shopping list! Maybe, have him bring back a newspaper or magazine- something to read together! Or use the feature to set a weekly allowance, and track how it is allocated.

Exercising Choices!

Since children are spending so much time indoors these days, you might test out the feature called the “activity center” (and let me know if it works). It’s like a Fitbit that tracks exercise routines. It then digitally lauds the effort with emoji coaching and milestones.  Since your son is at home and missing recess he might enjoy this.  On the other hand, will he exercise for the intrinsic satisfaction of keeping fit or as a token to share with friends? If the latter, it may unwittingly progress into oversharing on social media at a very young age.

There are pros and cons to Family Setup.  Until we all got smartphones, reaching the teen years meant becoming increasingly self reliant and self-contained, the concept of the ‘free range-kids.’  I honestly don’t know if our connected devices will help parents or  undermine the core values they need to teach. And, will kids who get these watches soon pine for full phones instead?  Finally, our relationships are so fragile these days, so what will happen  if the “family” splits- is it just Mom or just Dad or Grandpa that becomes the watch-keeper?