“I have been on the road with this documentary for eight months all over the country, and I have never heard a collection of thoughtful questions like the ones coming from your students tonight.” – Delaney Ruston, speaking about BDS students after viewing her film, Screenagers.

Last night, our school welcomed Delaney Ruston to present her documentary, “Screenagers,” to Belmont Day students, faculty, parents, and other local community members interested in joining us. The goal of the film was to provoke a series of important conversations – at school and at home – about the impact screen time is having on our experience as educators, students, and parents. It succeeded.

Before I thought about the film, however, I thought about Ms. Ruston’s comment about the BDS students and the two different ways in which one might interpret Ms. Ruston’s praise for them. The first, and perhaps the one to which we are most inclined, would be to celebrate the ways in which our students present themselves: as composed, thoughtful, aware students eager to engage in this important dialogue. This interpretation – one I wholeheartedly agree with – stands to reason. At a school that prides itself on academic excellence, the notion of intellectualizing a thought-provoking film such as hers is something our students are both capable of and inclined to do.

A different look at her praise, however, has stuck with me since the viewing: what if the questions our kids were asking were more indicative of their own personal curiosity? What if the film has simply pulled back the veil for them on the countless ways in which technology has infiltrated their experience as children of the 21st Century, and they are desperate to discuss it further? The answer as to which way one might interpret her praise falls, I am sure, somewhere in the middle, but as I considered it, I couldn’t help but think of the ways in which our own work around digital citizenship as a community were on display in each and every question our children asked:

  • “Where is the line between ‘taking a break’ and overuse of technology?”
  • “How might the next generation face these issues with parents who will be digital natives?”
  • “What if I use my phone as an alarm clock and then feel obligated to pick up when I hear it buzzing with constant text messages, even as I’m trying to get to sleep?”

These are a quick sample of what felt like twenty questions for the film’s director. Each one asked with sincerity and the authentic voice of a child trying to figure it all out. So, when Ms. Ruston responded with what she called “the three C’s” that we keep at the front of our minds when monitoring screen time – Creativity, Competency and Communication – I couldn’t help but think of another: Character.

Our students and our families are faced with a daunting challenge in the screen time debate: arriving to the conversation with empathy. Our generation of parents are the last of the digital adopters, the analog natives. Our children are born digital natives. We have inherently differing contexts that we bring to this conversation. What bridged that gap last night, however, was the character of our kids. Their questions were born of empathy, of the core values that have shaped them during their years at BDS. Their desire to understand was more deeply rooted, it seemed, in respect for others and mutual responsibility than in their own personal technological gain.

The whole night was a wonderful reminder of both the powerful draw that technology has on our children and the character work we are doing, from their earliest years here, to thoughtfully and deliberately counteract that draw. Last night, that thoughtfulness manifested in some of the best questions that the film’s director has seen throughout her nationwide tour of the film. For many of us, we have the benefit of seeing it each and every day here at Belmont Day. Have a great weekend.

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