Letter from Steve Piltch - February 2018

February 28, 2018

Dear Shipley Families,

Over the years and especially in the last few months, I have noticed the increased frequency with which people have their cell phones out and are using them quite publicly, even when they are with other people. On two recent occasions, I walked into different restaurants and noticed that at the majority of the tables, people had their cell phones sitting by their side. In many instances, people were using their phones instead of engaging in conversation. I even observed one family of four in which all four people were either having a conversation with someone on their phone, texting, or using their phone aimlessly for some other reason.

I could not stop thinking about this family dinner. I found it to be disconcerting and cause for reflection. While I’d like to believe that at some point the phones were put aside and the parents and children were engaging with each other, I know that probably wasn’t the case. I also know that many of us—and I very much include myself—rely on our phones (and other technology) way too often.

Research has shown that while smartphones provide us with tremendous capacity, there are people who rely on them in counterproductive ways. Knowing I too feel compelled all too often to check my e-mails, see my messages, check my steps, or Google something, I also recognize that I’m not always paying attention to those around me in the way that I should. Many years ago, we would have perceived such behavior to be rude and inappropriate; we all knew then and still know now the way to build relationships is and always has been to engage with and listen to those around us. Unfortunately, today we too often see the disruption of phones as acceptable, even though we are frustrated by the way it negatively affects our interactions and our experiences (some research shows that the mere presence of a phone distracts people from those around them).

The increased use of technology, social media, and other digital media in the 21st century has caused us to substitute these newer modes of communication for direct and personal face-to-face interaction. While this change may be more efficient at times, it undermines people’s ability to have full interactions about issues of concern. For example, we often avoid face-to-face meetings to save time, but this comes at a cost. Technology can create miscommunications and make it harder to have those rewarding or tough in-person conversations that truly connect us to one another.

There are other downsides to technology beyond these disrupted connections. As I have mentioned before, I was lucky enough to hear Sherry Turkle—best-selling author, sociologist, and MIT Professor— at a graduation event last year. Her speech, “How Technology Makes Us Forget What We Know About Life,” reminded everyone in attendance of the importance of putting down technology and dealing with boredom and solitude. She not only emphasized that people who learn how to be alone learn to be more empathetic, understanding, and creative, but also that those who do not have the opportunity to learn how to be alone become lonelier and potentially less effective and less fulfilled as life goes on. We need to teach our children (and remind ourselves) about the benefits and power of technology downtime. We need to remember how to have conversations in person so we can get back to nature and the essentialness of human conversation, particularly important at the moment given the current political climate. Turkle noted in her speech:

But right now, when we need it most, to nurture and renew our democracy, we are having trouble listening to each other. We need to reclaim what we know about life. When we reclaim our attention, our solitude, and our friendship, we will have a better chance to reclaim our communities, our democracy, and our shared common purpose. We had a love affair with a technology that seemed magical. But like great magic, it worked by commanding our attention and we took our attention off each other. Now we are ready, across the generations, to remember who we are: creatures of history, of deep psychology, of complex relationships, and of conversations artless, risky, and face-to-face. The choice ahead will not be easy, but perhaps neither hard nor easy, but those other opposites of easy: complex, evolved, and demanding. It’s time to make the corrections, and take stock of all the skills we'll need—and of how little technology is going to help us unless we remember all the things we know about life and living.

If you’d like to learn more from Sherry Turkle, I recommend viewing her TedTalk “Connected, but alone?” and reading one of her following books: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other and Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.

The overuse and misuse of technology is something most of us are guilty of without intending to be. I am certainly no exception. My kids and wife are helpful to me with this, as I hear “put the phone away, Dad” often. (In addition, I am renowned for reading articles on my iPad at all times of the day and night.)

Coincidentally, as I was writing this letter, I read a piece in Mind/Shift entitled Teens and Tech: Distinguishing Addiction from Habit by Anya Kamenetz and one in the Boston Globe by Billy Baker, entitled: Making his phone dumber was the smartest thing he ever did. Kamenetz does a great job capturing the issue on a global scale and has some great advice, and Baker speaks to his own experience in a really enjoyable (and effective) way. Baker also refers to Turkle and eloquently discusses his experience (and addiction). Based on it, he offers some great advice:

To cut those numbers way down, I knew I needed more than willpower. I had to get the junk food out of the house.

So I installed an app called Freedom, which I’d been using on my laptop for years and was thrilled to learn is now available for smartphones. Freedom is quite simple. You tell it what to block, set a timer, and that’s it. I had long used it to turn my laptop into a glorified typewriter, and it was amazing how much writing I could get done in a few hours when the distractions of the Internet were no longer a click away.

It works much the same for a phone. The app has a recommended list of the big time-wasters such as Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, LinkedIn, Instagram, Netflix, Reddit, Tinder, Apple News, and YouTube, and you just slide a bar to block the ones you want out of reach. Or you could add your own sites (or just block all apps and websites). There’s even a bar you can slide to block all politics. I slid that bar.

The other thing I did was turn my phone to grayscale, which is a popular hack people are using to cut down on screen time because you’d be amazed by how much less appealing a phone is without all those colorful icons that are designed to make you want to click. There are tons of websites that will walk you through the steps to do this, and you can set a shortcut so that three clicks on the home button will restore the color, should you want to watch a video or look at photos.

Of course, the same issue exists for many, with our iPads, computers, and other screens in front of us every day. While these all add enormous value, we need to be careful not to overuse or misuse them. When we do misuse them, the potential for counterproductive behavior creeps in for even the best-intended people. This is borne out in the movie, Screenagers, that was shown to families in January and included a discussion with the parents/guardians who were able to make the event. Although the move is focused on teens, it is very relevant to everyone.

Putting down the phone (and other technology) and engaging and focusing on being present is something I plan to work on this year. I urge those of you who face the same struggles with your phone, iPad, or computer to do the same. While I know it’s not always possible, an occasional technology-free dinner (or day) can go a long way and is a good first step in becoming more mindful about our technology overuse. Moreover, it will help to enhance our relationships with our spouse, colleagues, and children and will help us be better role models too.

If you see me checking my phone for something, let me know. I think we can help each other!

Warmest regards,

Steve Piltch
Head of School

P.S. – When I sent out my email about the tragedy in Florida, I mentioned that there had been 18 or 19 incidents this year. Just after sending it, I read an article in the Washington Post and received an e-mail from a parent letting me know the number was wrong. The article, No, there haven’t been 18 school shootings in 2018, debunks the number developed by Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit group, co-founded by Michael Bloomberg, that appeared in many articles. My thanks to the parent who brought this to my attention. However, while I am sorry that the number was wrong and will look to better verify such numbers in the future, it remains true that gun incidents in schools is far too common and needs to be changed. And you should have received notice that the parent session that I mentioned in the same e-mail will take place on Tuesday, March 13 at 7:00 p.m. I am hoping we will have a large turnout. Captain Frank Thomas of the LMPD and one or two of his colleagues will be joining us to discuss our situation and the role that adults can have in the process.
The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.