Cultivating Screen Awareness

by Mark Lukach, Ninth Grade Dean

Once I was walking through San Francisco with my family, and I walked right into a pole. I was texting-while-walking.

It really hurt.

It was also embarrassing. My wife and son laughed at me for the rest of the day about it, and I deserved it. My crash jolted me into momentary self-awareness about my phone use. My head throbbing, I was suddenly convinced that I was never going to text and walk again. I was going to keep my head up, shoulders back, and engage in the world, from here on out.

This all happened about six months ago. I couldn’t keep track of how many times I’ve reverted to old habits and broken that pledge.

More problematic for me are the Friday evenings when we all pile into the family room to watch a movie, and my four-year-old picks the same Disney movie to watch for the hundredth time, and within a few minutes, I take out my phone to read the news, and my wife takes out her phone to do whatever it is she’s doing, and there we are, all in the same room, but all engaged with different screens. “Alone together,” as Sherry Tuckle calls it.

I’m guessing I’m not the only one who has caught themselves in these behaviors. In fact, with my office in the Commons and my windows looking out at the activity of the Quad, I know for certain that I’m not the only one. I’ve seen all of us walking while texting or spending time in a group while isolating in our phones: students, faculty, parents, admin…all of us.

As Ninth Grade Dean, I spent the summer reading two books about technology use: Mindful Tech by David Levy and Alone Together by Sherry Turckle. After our visit by Catherine Steiner-Adair, I’m planning to check out The Big Disconnect as well. I also read a lot of articles about tech use—ironically, on my phone, in bed, before going to sleep, all of which I probably shouldn’t be doing—like Andrew Sullivan’s essay “I Used To Be A Human Being”.

Many of the books and articles in this genre sound the alarm of tech addiction throughout 80% of their subject matter, and it’s a dizzying Siren song to hear, but they don’t get into solutions until the last 20%, if at all. I think we all already know there’s something going on. I recently asked ninth graders if they think we have a problem with tech overuse here at Athenian, and the overwhelming majority agreed that we do.

The book I resonated with most was David Levy’s Mindful Tech. His masterful little book is pretty much entirely about solutions. Not necessarily big picture, society-wide solutions, but intensely personal solutions, for how to become more aware of our tech use, to empower us to make changes if we want them.

I especially like his emphasis on mindfulness as a lens for examining technology, because mindfulness deliberately distances itself from guilt. I don’t want my approach to tech to be about shaming. Not for myself, my family, or my students. (Although people who walk into poles while texting are sometimes caught on security cameras, and are definitely shamed!) This is instead about becoming more aware and empowered so that we can all make decisions that better our experiences and enhance our relationships.

So what’s that looked like for me?

For starters, I’ve made a lot of personal changes. I really do try and avoid texting and walking, especially on campus. If I need to text, I stop walking, and then when I finish the text, I put my phone away and keep moving. Another change has been if I’m in a group of people and I need my phone for something, I announce to them why I’m going to be using my phone (“let me check MyAthenian to see what we’re doing during today’s Morning Meeting”), and then I put it away when I’m done. I’ve also scheduled tech-free times during my day, especially in the evening during family time, so that I’m not always available via email or text.

Of course, I don’t do these things perfectly all of the time. But I’m trying, and I have to say, I’m already noticing a difference in how I engage with my phone and the people around me.

As for my job as Ninth Grade Dean, I’ve been experimenting with this in our ninth grade advisory program, and most recently on PSAT Wednesday, when the ninth grade has a half-day with an open agenda that I get to shape around current needs. I took some of Levy’s exercises and applied them to our ninth grade, not to shame them or mandate any change, but instead to help the students realize their own behaviors. Students were asked to pay attention to which app they use the most on their phones, and how frequently they check the app. In that exercise alone, without any mandates to enact changes, several students opted to restrict their use of the app.

Even cooler, on PSAT Wednesday, students brainstormed a few Town Meeting proposals to bring before the School to vote upon, such as creating tech “blackout” days during the school year, or places on campus where no technology is allowed (like designated rooms in the library, or the Main Hall during lunch). Very cool ideas. We’ll see where those ideas go.

I know that this is just the beginning, but I’m glad Athenian is getting more involved in this conversation. I am only one voice of many here who want us to be more active about addressing our tech use, and I’m excited to see where it’s going to take us. I’ve always admired this school for being at the forefront of the most advanced educational thinking practices, and I suspect that more thoughtfulness around tech is going to be a big part of that going forth.

If you’re interested in observing or changing your own practices with technology, I strongly encourage you to check out Daniel Levy’s book Mindful Tech. Just do yourself a favor and get the real book, rather than download it your phone. I don’t think we could handle the irony of reading that book on your phone while walking across campus.