Screen-Free Week: One Steiner School Confronts the Issue Head On.
`Dear students, to remain in this school you will have to commit to zero use of all screen technologies: no more TV, no more DVD's or cinema, no more social net-working. Collect your contract from my desk and return it, signed, to the office by the start of next week. Any questions?`
They didn't buy it for a second. The nonsense of such a `zero-tolerance` Screen Policy was obvious to all. Beyond a smirk, an `in your dreams` and an amused curiosity these teenagers knew they were being set up for a discussion rather then being informed of the school's latest attempt at shooting itself in the foot. But they were ready for the argument and equally ready to share their concerns about how their lives are constantly being channelled through screens.
The debate, at the South Devon Steiner school, was not stirring up anything new. Steiner schools have never been afraid to engage with the debate on how technology impacts on children, and nor are they alone in this. Mary Winn's The-Plug-In-Drug was published in 1977. Jerry Mander in 1978, Martin Large in 1980 and more recently Aric Sigman's Remotely Controlled have given teachers plenty of academic and populist back-up for endless parents' evenings on the subject of TV. Aric Sigman, one of the speakers at the Steiner Waldorf Schools Easter Conference in 2010 had awoken the indignation, anxiety and sense of responsibility many educators are feeling as the three `platforms`: mobile phone, lap-top and TV, fight it out for supremacy.
Increasingly parents are asking schools for guidelines and support as they attempt to manage their children's exposure to screen time, and sensible schools are taking the discussion and consultation to the older pupils where interesting new perspectives emerge: `It's too late for me` one pupil said after the above classroom discussion, `but I wouldn't want my little brother playing computer games at the age I did.` `You can't keep us away from films and stuff` said another, `it's not going to happen. But at least we know how to talk about them, what they are really about.` One group of thirteen year-olds bemoaned the passing of books: `We want a library` they said, more than they wanted internet access. `Energy use,` said another, `people need to know about data centres and the carbon footprint of the internet.`
More than anything else these young people want to take their place in the real world, both as digital residents and as free individuals. They are on the front line of a compromise and feel it keenly. They also know that a `zero-tolerance` approach is never going to work, and nor do they want to sacrifice the benefits that screens bring to their lives, but they do want to engage actively with the problems that screen exposure brings. As one sixteen year old summarized it: `We don't want to look back on all this as the "Screen Age" in the way that people look back on the "Cigarette Age", shocked by a level of harm that nobody really questions. But don't tell us it damages our heath, we already know. We need to learn how to live with it.`
An earlier version of this article appeared in the SWSF Newsletter in Spring 2010