Can Putting Devices Away Build Character?

Media Literacy

Can Putting Devices Away Build Character?

By Stephen Noonoo     Sep 19, 2019

Can Putting Devices Away Build Character?

Every Saturday for the past ten years, author and director Tiffany Shlain turns off her phone and powers down her devices for what she calls “Tech Shabbats,” a reference to the Jewish sabbath.

“I love all the good the web can do to ignite a global conversation,” says Shlain, who is perhaps best known for founding the Webby Awards, which recognizes websites and works of digital media. “But it’s not good all the time.”

Now she’s merging her screen skepticism with another of her projects, Character Day. Taking place on Sept. 27, the event focuses on building social-emotional traits such as empathy, perspective, curiosity and perseverance in students.

Founded six years ago, the day features short films and discussion questions for classrooms, culminating in a daylong live stream where schools can tune in to watch Q&As with education luminaries on related topics. Last year, Shlain’s film studio, Let It Ripple, claimed that more than 15,000 schools and 200,000 groups across the world took part.

“We’re spending so much of our time expressing ourselves through our screens, and we thought that would be a really powerful question to look at: How do screens amplify our character strengths and when do they diminish them?” says Shlain. “And to ask questions about when is it good to be on our screens and when should we turn them off?”

The more time we spend online, the more our digital activities can define our character and how we treat others, Shlain says. “You can feel incredible empathy when you see a news event from far away,” she says. “But a lot of times on the comments section people start piling on and there’s not a lot of empathy because there are no faces attached to that.” Detaching from devices can also give us new perspective, she argues, as we take time to think critically about what we’ve just seen without being pulled in by other digital distractions.

The sweet spot for Character Day is really pegged at middle and high school, says Shlain, but partner groups such as Common Sense Media have added materials for students as young as kindergarten. Schools can also tap into a resource bank with thousands of related activities. (Participation requires free registration.)

Character Day isn’t just directed at students in classrooms, but to a wider array of groups shaping education. Beyond her “Dear Students” film, aimed at teens, she’s releasing other short films for parents, tech CEOs and even one for general audiences called “Dear Fellow Humans.” Each film runs about 2 minutes long.

During the live stream, Shlain will chat with participants including Angela Duckworth, author of “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” as well as Refinery29 president, Amy Emmerich. Others include eighth grade TEDx speaker Indigo Mudbhary and Bolaji Oyejide, the author of the book series “Brave Young Heroes.”

Duckworth’s portion promises to be especially thought-provoking. “I think unplugging is a good thing,” Duckworth says in an email to EdSurge, adding “whether that leads to enduring changes in how we think, feel and act is an open question!”

In the lead up to Sep. 27, Character Day’s official website is offering a series of weekly challenges related to the theme of technology and social-emotional behavior, echoing podcaster Manoush Zomorodi’s “Bored and Brilliant” series. The first challenge asked participants to not look at their phones first thing in the morning and during meals. Last week, it was to put it down for 30 minutes. This week focuses on cultivating character online and recognizing integrity in digital spaces. It will lead up to asking participants to follow Shlain’s vaunted Tech Shabbat, an experience she chronicles in her new book, “24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week.”

“It puts me in a much better space to be online when I am during the other six days,” says Shlain. “It gives me the perspective and the critical thinking I need.”

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