From the beginning, the faculty of the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School has taken a strong stand to protect children from the detrimental effects of electronic media. At this time, when all the peoples of the world are searching for ways to heal our differences and offer a peaceful, healthy way of life to our children, we are called on to do all we can to equip our children well. Thinking with clarity, focus, creativity, and flexibility will help meet any need of the future. Media works against these capacities.
Today we all know that electronic media are harmful to the healthy development of children, but we may think that careful selection of programs, watching with our children, or sitting with them while they “surf the web” makes it okay. Evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. Alarming effects on the developing senses, nervous system and brain function have been documented. A child is driven to an inner disharmony by the effects of electronic media. It manifests in nervousness and lack of concentration, a lack of initiative, inability to play or learn, boredom and listlessness. The accumulation of repressed energy leads to aggression, impulsive outbreaks or, on the other hand, extreme passivity.
As teachers we see the compromising effects of electronic media on the children’s ability to be present in the classroom. It manifests in short attention span, distractibility, a need to be entertained, attention-getting behavior and inability to listen and take in a lesson. One of the worst possible effects electronic media may have is the eroding of the will. No matter how smart a person is, if there is no will power or initiative to carry out ideas, this intelligence is pointless.
Our visual system, the ability to search out, scan, focus and identify whatever comes in the visual field, is impaired by watching television. These visual skills are also the ones that need to be developed for effective reading. The lack of eye movement when watching television or any screen media is problematic because reading requires the eyes to continually move from left to right across the page. According to Susan R. Johnson, M.D., the weakening of eye muscles from lack of use negatively impacts the ability and effort required to read.
Electronic media images teach values and behavior patterns to children. They accept media characters as models for their own attitudes and actions. At some level, children begin to judge their own meaning, dignity, and worth in comparison with these images. Dependence on media entertainment (and it is being compared to other addictions) disrupts the child’s formative encounter with the world and can become the dominating influence. Mass media breeds the mass human being, stamping on every child the same experience. We don’t allow our children to talk to strangers, yet through the media, we allow strangers into the minds and souls of our children every day.
Rapid technological changes in media have placed new safety, market, academic and social pressures on our children, their parents and their School. Concerns about the influence of these media are not limited to those of us who have chosen to raise or teach our children in the Waldorf community.
The School has worked to assess the pros and cons of these media in the context of the values that are at the center of our mission. As we addressed each element of these media we asked ourselves many questions such as:
- How does exposure to these media influence or support what we wish to cultivate in our children?
- Where does the use of these media coincide with our pedagogic and social development goals?
- Do these media support or co-opt the freedom of expression and imagination of our children?
- How does media use by a few influence the many?
- What practical or useful role do these media serve?
- Whose needs are being addressed when we expose our children to these media, what are those needs and are those needs being fulfilled?
- Whatever our policies may be, how do we encourage our families to support them?
Please know that the development of these policies is not intended as a judgment. Rather it is our best determination of what we believe is consistent and supportive of what we are trying to accomplish at the School. We understand and appreciate that for some families these policies will require an adjustment to current practices. We invite those families to come in and discuss these policies with us. In the meantime, we encourage our parents to ask of themselves the questions above with which we have struggled, as well as others that arise as technology advances.
In his book, Stages of Imagination, longtime Green Meadow faculty member, David Sloan, eloquently addresses concerns about the media saturated world that children face today:
Young people today…are growing up in a virtual wasteland for the soul, in an age where electronic simulation has all but supplanted direct and vital experience. As our children shuffle from computer to television to movie screens (to which we can now add cell phone and iPod screens), a number of unhealthy effects surface ever more insistently:
- Young people rely less and less upon their own inner resources….As their reliance on external pictures deepens, their own imaginative capacities begin to shrivel.
- Children spend less and less time relating to other human beings face-to-face. Interacting with a machine is more convenient, and certainly less frustrating, than having to dicker with playmates to resolve the inevitable disagreements that arise. The computer does what you want; never has instant gratification been more possible, or more potentially damaging.
- Young people are losing their sense of what is real and what is not, what is true and what is not…. Swimming in the murky waters of simulated uncertainties, young people can no longer trust their perceptions.
To be clear, GBRSS believes that media and various electronic devices can be valuable tools when they are used properly and at an age that is appropriate. Our media policy addresses what we believe constitutes proper use and when that use is appropriate. Moreover, this policy should be viewed in the context of an overarching School program that addresses media and our children.
One cornerstone of our media policy is the request to eliminate media exposure from the daily experience of the child. It is important to recall that the objective to eliminate media exposure in the daily life of the child applies to all students in our school, especially those in Early Childhood and the earlier grades, which are particularly critical. The simple reason for this is that most media exposure is directly antithetical to what Waldorf teachers seek to accomplish in the classroom. As in the Russian fairy tale, it’s as if all the work of the day is undone at night (or over the weekend or vacation).
In this policy, traditional electronic media includes listening to recorded music, radio and viewing television, videos and films. With respect to these, we strongly urge a media free environment for children in Early Childhood through and including Grade 4. For students in Grade 5 and up we strongly recommend limited exposure to recorded music during the week and only selected, supervised and limited exposure to television, videos and films on weekends only (i.e., not on school nights, which includes Sunday nights).
We request that students not be provided with cell phones unless absolutely essential for parental communication purposes, in which case you are asked to notify the class teacher of such a situation. Note that the use of cell phones is not permitted on campus, at school events or on the school buses without a teacher’s permission. If a student has permission to have a cell phone at school, it must be turned off and kept in backpacks, not on the child’s person. When students are off campus, phones are to be used only as telephones, not for text messaging, Internet access, as cameras or gaming or audio devices. These rules also apply to all school sponsored trips and to the school buses.
When coming to the school, we ask parents to be conscious of their cell phone use. As we adults model behavior for our children, we ask that parents refrain from using cell phones at school and that phones be turned off at school events.
We require that children in Early Childhood through grade 4 not be provided with such devices. These devices are not allowed on GBRSS’s campus, on the school buses or on any school trips. We strongly recommend that children in grades 5 through 8 not be provided with such devices.
We ask that students in early childhood through grade 5 abstain from all computer access, including the Internet. Teachers at GBRSS do not require students to do “Internet research” or use computers for any purpose. All research projects will be based on library research or sources provided directly by the teacher. We also require that these students abstain from any video games regardless of the device on which the games reside.
GBRSS strongly recommends that children in grades 6 through 8 refrain from Internet access and computer use. If they do access the Internet or use the computer, such access and use should be carefully monitored, for a specific purpose that is pre-approved by the parent, for limited time periods and never on school nights. Please password-protect computers to control access. Do not allow computer use when a parent is not at home. Please locate computers in open areas of the home and under no circumstances allow children to use computers in the privacy of bedrooms. At no time will the teachers at GBRSS require students to do “Internet research” or use computers for any purpose. All research projects will be based on library research or sources provided directly by the teacher.
We strongly recommend that children in grades 6 through 8 also abstain from video games regardless of the device on which the games reside. In particular, students are requested to not access online game sites at any time, especially those that require payment. Video games are addictive and can adversely impact students’ work, as well as the social life of the class. Many teachers (not just those in Waldorf education) are observing these addictive effects in their students and classrooms.
We ask that parents completely eliminate student access to all electronic social networking sites. These sites (current examples of which are “MySpace” and “FaceBook” as well as similar functions in other sites) pose a significant and well-documented threat, not only to children’s safety, but to their ability to interact in socially healthy ways.
We ask that parents eliminate student use of all electronic communication such as email, instant messaging (in all its versions) and chat rooms. Among our goals is to cultivate aware, empathetic and genuine interpersonal skills among our children. These forms of communication permit users to engage in forms of communication and activities that are antithetical to these goals. Furthermore, experience shows that such use creates serious social problems in the culture of the classroom.
There is a tendency for students’ media use to increase tremendously over breaks and vacations, especially during summer months when they may have much more free time at home. Please adhere to the school’s media policy when school is not in session.
There are numerous reasons why parents choose to send their children to our school. Nonetheless, we all share certain common goals as a community; primary among these is promoting the well-being of our children. A natural question that arises is: What are the consequences of not adhering to the media policy? In answering, our thoughts turn to the children. The consequences for our children—individually and within our school community—are a highly compromised academic and social environment that undermines many of the reasons parents send their children to our school, as well as how their teachers can serve them.
As detailed earlier, we’ve adopted several specific policies related to media use by students. The following are the steps the school plans to take if a departure from these policies is observed:
- If a cell phone is misused, the cell phone will be confiscated and we will contact the parents to discuss the situation. After three incidents, the student will not be allowed to have a cell phone at school. If the text messaging feature on a student’s phone is abused, parents will be asked to disable this feature.
- PDA’s or personal audio or visual devices (e.g., iPods) on campus will be confiscated and we will contact the parents.
- If a teacher observes a negative impact due to media use on a child’s individual or social behavior, or on their academic performance, the parents will be invited to meet with the teacher and the faculty administrator to find a solution.
While GBRSS acknowledges that it may be difficult to protect children from media exposure as they grow older, and that upholding the school’s media policy may require challenging adjustments in some households (particularly those with older siblings), we believe that the potential harm from media exposure requires parents at our school to observe these policies carefully.
If parents are having difficulty following the policy, we urge them to contact the school; many of our community members, including experienced parents and teachers, have met with similar challenges in their family lives and may be able to offer helpful suggestions and advice for guiding children away from media use.