Aspen schools and parents looks at digital, social media use among teenagers

Erica Robbie
The Aspen Times
Author and digital media expert Yalda Uhls talks before a crowd at Aspen Country Day School Tuesday night.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times |

Parents and educators in the Aspen Country Day School gymnasium Tuesday revealed that they related to the issues regarding teenagers’ digital and social media use as highlighted in the film “Screenagers.”

“Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age” looks at how screen time impacts kids’ development and offers parents and school officials advice on how to best help teenagers as they attempt to navigate the unchartered waters of the digital era.

On Tuesday night, Aspen Country Day invited the community to watch a screening of the film, followed by a discussion.

Digital media expert Yalda Uhls led the discussion moderated by Aspen Institute Vice President of Public Programs Kitty Boone.

Uhls authored the book, “Media Moms and Digital Dads” last fall, and also works with Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that advocates childrens’ use of safe technology and media.

The Aspen School District uses common sense media, said Aspen High School Assistant Principal Sarah Strassburger, to introduce children to the concept of digital citizenship as early as kindergarten.

“We take appropriate, safe social media and internet use seriously (in the Aspen School District),” Strassburger said Friday. “As a parent and as an educator, I am aware of the pitfalls of social media and of the negative effects of too much screen time.”

Some consequences of excessive tech time the film identifies include teens’ issues sleeping at night, declining academic and/or athletic performances, reliance on technology to avoid awkward social situations and perhaps the most severe of all, full-blown internet addictions that require rehabilitation treatment.

In the film, a representative from Restart Addiction Recovery Program, a Washington-based rehabilitation center that specializes in digital addictions, explains how the processes of both developing and overcoming internet addictions is the same as with any type of addiction.

For Andrew, a college student in the film who went to Restart for his addiction to video games, his experience included video game benders that led him to fail out of school, an emotional and tearful intervention by his family and undergoing a rehab-mandated detoxification.

With regard to excessive video game play time, the film also looks at how violent video games have been shown to decrease childrens’ empathy and sensitivity while consequently increasing violent thoughts.

Although this effect may not be huge, noted one expert interviewed in the film, it is still an effect.

Another repercussion of the digital era the documentary explores is the shallowness and female narcissism as a result of today’s social media and selfie culture.

Aspen High School student Erika Phillips-Lopez said this is “pretty accurate” to what she experiences both among her peers and personally.

“I feel as if there is almost a pressure to post the perfect picture, you can spend a lot of time trying to take the perfect selfie, which sounds completely ridiculous, but it’s true. Finding the perfect lighting and angle and filter is all things that I definitely have spent time on even though I know in the end it doesn’t matter and that it is kind of silly,” Phillips-Lopez wrote in an email to The Aspen Times. “But the biggest thing I see, and sometimes even feel myself, is the validation people seem to almost need by the reactions they get on their photos they post. Like you need other people to validate you and get a certain amount of likes and comments to feel attractive and good about yourself.”

The Aspen teen explained via email that in the same way these responses are capable of validating an individual’s self-worth. She said, “I often see it almost tearing down peoples’ confidence and self-worth.”

She added: “You can tell people time and time again that it doesn’t matter, but with so much of our world centered around it, it’s hard not to listen and feel like it isn’t true.”

For adults, it seems one of the greatest universal challenges in addressing teens’ digital use is this notion of paving unchartered territory.

“That’s what parents talk about on their hikes and when out to down to dinner,” said Patricia McLernon, who has two sons in fifth and seventh grades at Aspen Country Day School.

“(Parents) don’t know the right thing to do. Everything is new,” said McLernon, who also serves as the chair of Partners in Education.

She explained this group as Aspen Country Day School’s version of a parent teachers association.

In trying to better understand the digital age, both Uhls and the film commentators urged parents to initiate conversations with their kids about appropriate online behavior, stay involved with their kids’ online presence and set boundaries and restrictions when necessary.

For parents, this means if your child has a Facebook account, you also should have one — and you should be their friend online, too, according to Uhls.

One suggestion from the film is for parents and kids to sit down together and draft a contract that outlines mutually agreed upon rules for using tech devices inside the home.

Toward the end of Uhls’ talk, she offered three pieces of advice for parents:

1) Be a role model for your children and consider your own media use.

2) “Content, context and balance” — consider how kids spend their time online and if they balance it with other activities versus simply looking at the amount of time they spend online.

3) Set aside device-free time every day to spend with your family.

Finally, Uhls reminded audience members that technology is, by no means, the enemy. She said eight of the 10 fastest-growing jobs on LinkedIn involve technology.

“Kids do need to learn this stuff. But they need adults in their lives to help them with this stuff,” said Uhls, adding that the “head in the sand” parenting approach will not work in this case.

Though Phillips-Lopez said she does not think her phone interferes with her schoolwork, she said she understands parents’ and the schools’ frustration with students’ misuse of technology.

“It can be distracting, and if it is an obvious distraction, taking it away in class seems to work well. Or some of my teachers even make us turn in our phones in the beginning of class, which also seems to work,” she wrote.

But I don’t feel like punishing us for being dependent and tech savvy is productive, either. … It sounds kind of weird, but I feel like we all like it and are good at a lot of things that involve technology, and it’s something that is unique to us and makes us, as a generation, stand out.”


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