It’s hard to know that when you are living it, a little like fish do not notice that they are surrounded by water or we as humans don’t think much about the air we breathe. Today’s high school students have never known a world that was entirely analog — nor even a world without ubiquitous smart phones. Virtually every student in the United States has frequent access to social media, Wikipedia, and answers (sometimes more accurate than others) from a device in their hands or least fairly close by. Those who cannot afford phones connected to the Internet commonly have access to Internet-connected devices at their public libraries and schools nearby.
Students today grow up in a world that is always on and radically interconnected. The ubiquity of technological access for young people in the United States leads to many complications. A primary effect is the large amount of time that young people spend online one way or another. Studies of online behavior consistently show that tweens spend about six hours a day using media and teens spend as much as nine hours a day. They tend not to distinguish between online life and offline life; it is simply “life.” Today, a single act can be felt and experienced globally, almost instantaneously. Many young people rarely spend time that is truly “alone.”
The effects of these changes are mixed. In many respects, the digital age brings positives to the lives of young people. Young people have access to more knowledge than any human has ever been able to get their hands on, at virtually no cost, any time, for instance. Young people are engaged in wonderfully creative, life-giving, positive activities online sometimes. Through technology, they reach friends across the world and stay in touch with older relatives in ways that enrich their relationships.
Technology has the potential to level certain playing fields. As we strive toward greater equality in modern society, for instance, technology can help. It won’t help automatically — in fact, it could lead to greater inequality if left unchecked. But at least in theory, access to all the world’s knowledge, the ability to create new firms and institutions with low barriers to entry, and the potential to connect to like-minded people anywhere around the world can be positives for individual agency. Young people can (and do) start influential social movements with a hashtag and Twitter account; they can start disruptive, and ultimately profitable, commercial start-ups without seeking much capital from adults.
Widespread technological access is not an unalloyed good. As parents fear, young people can get pulled into dangerous activities online. They can, and do, meet people online who seek to do them harm. In these cases, they need supportive friends and adults to help them avoid these perils and make good choices about what information they share and with whom they spend time. Parents often worry more than they need to about these types of harms — stranger-danger remains rare in the digital era, and has not increased due to access to these technologies — but the risk is real for too many young people. Less drastic but still potentially harmful, many young people spend too much of their day online — especially playing Fortnite or distracting themselves on social media “while” doing their homework — to the detriment of other activities.
The take-away for me, as an educator and as a parent, is to be sure that young people have the time and space to be contemplative, offline and with one another in positive settings. The goal is not to fight the technology or to ban young people from engaging in social life, online or otherwise. It is to teach a balance that will ensure that there is room for the social, emotional, and reflective moments in the day, face-to-face with other young people and caring adults. Students must learn to have empathy and care for one another, to develop the skills to support themselves and to be there for their fellow students during the inevitable hard times of adolescence.
The complicated issue of youth and media ties to the topic of faith in education. As schools, we have a key role to play during this period of a young person’s growth. Some schools are set up to provide a “right” answer, whether to reinforce existing beliefs or to convert a student to a particular faith. For schools such as the one I lead, Andover, which no longer professes a singular faith, our job must be different in the 21st century. It should be to put our students in a place where they can go on their own journey of faith with supportive adults nearby. It should be to give them the skills and the time to work through what they really believe.
One teacher at our school, Dr. Stephanie Sparling Williams, recently described an art course she is teaching to Andover students. The title of the course is “What is America and What is American Art?” The course involves studying visual artworks in the museum on our campus, the Addison Gallery of American Art. One part of Dr. Sparling Williams’s teaching approach is “slow looking in fast times.” Students are required to slow down, to look in depth at works of art, using just their own senses, unmediated by any device. In my own courses and those I co-teach, we always make time for outdoor classes that involve strolling around the campus, talking about ideas and reflecting on the environment in which we live, work, and play. These (offline) moments of thought and reflection in a young person’s education strike me as more important than ever.
In this digital age, at a school devoted to inclusion, we ought to prioritize how to make room for development of the soul as well as the mind and body. That’s easier said than done. I think we make room for too little of this kind of space in our children’s lives. But it is a worthy endeavor with deep, enduring consequences for the kids in our care.
John Palfrey is the head of school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Prior to joining the Andover community in July 2012, John worked as a professor and vice dean at Harvard Law School and served as executive director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. He has published extensively on how young people are learning in a digital era, as well as the effect of new technologies on society at large. Outside of his work at Andover, John chairs the board of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the board of LRNG. He also serves on the boards of the Berkman Klein Center and School Year Abroad. John is the author or co-author of nine books, including Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces (2017); Born Digital (2016, with Urs Gasser); and BiblioTech (2015). He holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School, an M.Phil. from the University of Cambridge, and an A.B. from Harvard College.
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