About kids and devices: Trying to find the answers

I’m trying to figure something out…

At the risk of admitting my age, I will disclose that when I was in middle school, the following were popular “first run” television shows: the Brady Bunch, the Partridge Family, the 6 Million Dollar Man, Charlie’s Angels, Happy Days, and Laverne and Shirley.  That was some great TV right there.  The thing is, I watched an appalling amount of television when I was a kid.  

At that time, there were articles in newspapers and magazines about the har


Brady Bunch

m being done to children through too much TV watching.  My parents and teachers talked a great deal about it also: all these kids to do is watch television, they don’t play outside anymore; they don’t interact with each other.  My teachers lamented that they couldn’t compete with the nature of the material as it was presented on the television screen.  I distinctly remember my 10th grade English teacher, Rich Settani, ranting to my class about TV and how hard it made his job, “Big Bird, Sesame Street… I can’t compete with that!  I don’t even wear colorful ties!” (We loved Mr. Settani).

To anyone following the present-day debate about children and device use,  these conversations will sound more than a little familiar? Are devices harming our children? As a principal in middle school, I am particularly interested in this discussion.

There’s an informative study from Common Sense Media and a series of 

TED Talks on this subject.  At both sites, you’ll find evidence both for and against device use by young people and adults. Their arguments sound vaguely similar to the disputes about TV watching that proliferated when I was in middle school.

As a principal, I am often called upon to weigh in on this debate and to be honest, I’m trying to figure it out.

I have a small scar above my left eye.  When I was 4 years old, while I lay on the floor watching a TV on a metal stand, I kicked over the stand and the TV fell on my face.  


As far as I can determine, this is the greatest harm that has ever come to me from watching television. 


TV’s hurt when they fall on your face.

Our teachers and students can accomplish incredible things through the use of technology that I couldn’t even dream of when I was in middle school.  Using technology, teachers can gather real-time, personalized data from students about their learning and connect them with each other and with the world in amazing ways. BUT… If I posted a photo of my cafeteria on a Tuesday or a Thursday (not Wednesday, that’s “device-free day”) you’d see too many students with their heads buried in their phones.  This can’t be a good thing, can it? Personally, I rely on my phone to stay organized, to track data, and to connect with my personalized network of other learners who share ideas and give me valuable support.  But the urge to frequently check my phone has become a physical “tic” that I know interferes with my relationships and attention span. So you can see how I’m ambivalent when it comes to the blessings and curses of devices.

Principals often share expertise and conclusions, but what do they do when they don’t have either of these?  Is it okay for a principal to say, “I don’t know the answer to this?” I hope so because that’s what I’m saying…  I choose to believe that there’s power in learning alongside the stakeholders in our school community. I will engage kids and adults in focused conversations, share experiences, help them reflect, and gather data and opinions about our technology use.  I’m trying to find the answers to questions about children and devices, but in the meantime, I hope I’m modelling what it means to be a learner.

How about you?  Are there areas of your practice as a leader or teacher that you haven’t figured out?   How are you modelling your learning? How can we be transparent about the process as we learn new things and try to find answers to life’s essential questions?


I put my device in “phone jail” for a day along with a group of 6th graders.  Try it!

About dfgately

Middle School Principal Jericho, NY
This entry was posted in adolescence, Best Practice, Educational Focus, Leadership, Parenting, Personal Best, Reflections, Teaching/Learning and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to About kids and devices: Trying to find the answers

  1. Excellent blog post Dr. Gately. This is by far the biggest struggle my wife and I deal with on a daily basis. Striking a healthy balance between device use and device free time. We have Screen Time apps on every device that supports it. We insist on the boys finishing up their homework etc before screen time and PC game play. We have a policy that if any of our kids want a new device they will have to learn a new skill. When my 6th grader wanted a new PC, he had to learn how to build it and fix it. In the process, he learned how to put it together, install the operating system, protect the machine from malicious attacks and about online safety. We have decided that our kids are better off avoiding social media for now; but there is recent pressure to allow those apps as well. Despite all of these measures, my wife and I still feel ill equipped to deal with this onslaught of devices/apps/technology.The scene you describe in the MS cafeteria is reminiscent of what happens in teenage parties these days., everyone’s head is buried in their devices.
    I am not sure banning the devices altogether would have the desired effect either. “Rebound device use” once the school is over will be my prediction. It is a physical, psychological and more and more emotionally addictive affair.

    I think if MS/District came up with best use device practices for the parents and we as parents all adopted from these set of rules things would be better. I say this because most of the time the battle I am fighting at 9PM as a parent is “but Daddy, all my friends are all playing” or some other version of it. I feel that this is the new version of peer pressure and fitting in, except that it is happening much faster and with more ferocity from what I recall during time..
    In short, if the school district came up with a list of common sense guidelines/best practices, it would be a tremendous guide to parents. Unfortunately, these are the wild wild west days of kids and technology. We do not know what we don’t know and it will take some time to sort it all out.
    Sam Barzideh MD

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