Time for media parents' evenings?

By Felicitas Bayer, July 2022

For many years, Waldorf schools have been dealing with the question of what exactly is meant by "media literacy", how it comes about and what can and should be done for it in school. Existing beliefs about the necessary maturity and the real, increasingly everyday use of digital technology for homework and the like are increasingly diverging, leaving room for uncertainty and the uncomfortable need to avoid telling the teacher the truth about actual media consumption at home.

Photo: © photocase_3386129

In the context of school, it seems advisable to begin by demarcating well where the parents' area of responsibility in matters of "media education" ends and the school's responsibility might begin. Fundamentally we probably have to assume that the understanding of media education is still changing, since in the coming years generations of parents and teachers who have grown up with digital technology themselves will set new standards. 

The media parents' evening – from when and how often?

In practice, it is evident that the topic is becoming more prevalent in individual first classes and that even the second class of nursery is not immune to "nightmare chain letters". From class 5 onwards, the number of smartphones among pupils grows rapidly. It is not unusual for a morning to begin with 157 messages in the class chat.

There is a growing need to talk about the potential dangers and emerging issues of using the Internet. On the other hand, operating a computer, such as word processing, the 10-finger system and research skills, has not yet made its way into the curriculum and often fails due to a lack of equipment, too few feasible ideas in relation to the existing curriculum or inexperienced colleagues. Thus a gap keeps widening between the increasingly self-evident use of the smartphone for club chats, photos, games, social networks and a quick search and the competence to use the computer as a work tool in a meaningful way.

It is clear that there is a need to talk and act – the only question is: how?

There are Waldorf schools that already address the topic during the admission interview for class 1 – sometimes more, sometimes less qualitatively prepared. But this exciting day is rarely enough to provide the foundation for the years to come. "Media concepts" are offered for download on the website for this purpose. Many schools try to get the class to give up smartphones at the beginning of the 8-year journey with some kind of media agreement – often this does not last the course. Other schools have incorporated digital media into their main lessons and other lessons and use them more and more as a matter of course.

It is important to keep parents well informed in this ambiguous intermediate state and to involve them in the development of media education at the respective school. Parents' evenings on the topic should definitely take place regularly and in all years.

However, many parents need very practical help and want support. It is not always self-evident that parents take the time to get to know the media world themselves and to get an idea of what the children like to play, etc. What means are there to protect the child? How can I tell which settings an app applies, such as the location function? How do I set it or turn it off? What are in-app purchases? What do I do if my child is contacted by strangers via mobile phone? It tends not to be possible to discuss such questions and considerations, which can also be very personal, on an equal footing in parents' evenings and they come up again and again at different times in the families. Specific surgeries offered by experienced parents and colleagues/social education workers could be helpful. Meanwhile there are also a number of external online media education offers that schools can organise on a regular basis with specifically selected providers to help guide parents. 

Responsibility at home

As with fire, water, electricity and road traffic, the responsibility initially lies with the parents. The devices are purchased and set up at home and, in the best case, they are also discussed there.

However, the school has an unpleasant role to play. On the one hand, the class is formed without regard to media use at home, on the other hand, media experiences of individual pupils are transported into the class and thus become a topic for everyone. The awareness that the decision of parents to provide their child with a smartphone or tablet has an impact on all other homes is an absolute goal of the parents' evenings.

We encounter every conceivable opinion and idea of "media education" at parents' evenings: from technology freaks and experts to the absolute rejection of any mobile communication. Some parents decide to track their children via smartphone or smartwatch on the way to school because they feel safer that way. Others willingly share their tablet at home but do not buy the child their own device. Others don't seem to care at all what the children do with the equipment, wherever that might be. And with regard to those who have thought about it, the result (from time locks to parental controls or bans on online games or chat) varies a great deal but is at the same time immediately visible to the other smartphone owners in the class.

Parents can therefore not be relieved of the task of finding a way to deal with mobile devices in their own families by the "institution" of school. Be it the "punishment" of having a smartphone taken away or the "reward" of getting more media time if an unwelcome task is done well: it will always remain the responsibility of the parents what relationship the children build with the media.

Connection with the theory of the senses

Of course we see no reason to deprive our children in their second seven-year-period – who are starting to help around the house, keep their “appointments” at clubs and with friends, do their homework and study – of the joys of digital technology.

Especially at the age of twelve, we can have the impression that we are dealing with very sensible creatures.

It is just that empathy and judgement are far from mature and are only beginning to develop. What is to grow mature must be tested. The child wants to decide for themselves whether they like what they see, what they can say "yes" or "no" to, whom they can stand, what warms their heart. They are filled with a real hunger for perception, want to discover the world and be discovered themselves: competitive eating, tests of courage, trying out what is "forbidden", expanding their radius and going into town alone or with friends are all part of it.

During this time the children need the guidance of their parents who are responsible for what things are allowed, how misunderstandings and insults are dealt with, how mistakes can be made good. This also applies to the Internet: what content to expect, how to comply with T&Cs and how to deal with unpleasant experiences. In a world of bullying and violence, personal guidance to train these skills is indispensable.

If the deeds and words of the role models drift apart, that is also an experience.

Working through bad media experiences, whether with teachers or parents, contributes significantly to relationships, formation of conscience and dealing with mistakes. At the same time it becomes clear that the smartphone can no longer provide suitable assistance at this point. Here it is essential that the people in whom the pupils confide are familiar with the issues, understand the appeal of the media and can provide appropriate support.

The class chat

From class 5 onwards, when the group in the class chat becomes larger and larger, new and usually also conflictual topics come up. First of all, not everyone belongs yet and the notorious bullying situations arise. This happens when in school the question: "Have you read this in the class chat this morning?" excludes some, or when others who are not present are written about.

It is important that parents are made aware of the public nature of class chats and it is helpful if class teachers work out rules with the class that are appropriate for the children. Fine if it doesn't have to be until class 7 because that is actually when the issue first comes up, not good if it failed to be done for a year or two and unpleasant situations arise as a result.

It should be clear that parents read along in the class chat because according to the T&Cs, depending on the provider, it is not allowed to use a chat at all under the age of 14 or 16. It makes sense for the class chat that parents agree on a provider who also takes concerns about data protection seriously. And it is desirable to be able to talk with each other about what is being written, what this triggers at home in some cases and what kind of information is useful or even desirable. However, such a relationship within the parent body is not a matter of course and therefore also requires a fair amount of tolerance and goodwill. And a group of pupils who just want to chat and gripe online should simply not call themselves "class chat".

Parents' and pupils' evenings in upper school

At the beginning of upper school, the most frequently mentioned concern of parents is gaming addiction, or the constant use of social media. How are parents supposed to weigh up whether gaming or chatting for hours on end (especially after the corona-induced lockdowns) has already reached the stage of addictive behaviour or is still "normal"?

How can parents judge whether the lack of interest in school and "meaningful" leisure activities stems from puberty and is not a cause for concern? How are parents supposed to know what nasty psychological machinations are used in some games to build up pressure not to stop?

How do parents notice when their children, with their headphones on, communicate to an ever greater extent with strangers in chats and allow themselves to become financially dependent through online costs for higher levels etc. being taken on?

The children are now at an age when "reasonable" conversations become more difficult. Since most parents want to be informed, it makes sense to continue to provide resources that are made available to all in order to stay in conversation with each other.

And how do pupils, parents and teachers start a conversation about the many devices that are brought into the playground?

In many schools, the discussion about switching off smartphones and smartwatches during lessons or in the playground and sensible measures in case of non-compliance is an ongoing topic. It is probably the ideal discussion material for participation and cooperation in the school community; after all, it is about nothing less than our own privacy, the protective space that school offers, and a possibility to develop a togetherness supported by many.

The biggest attraction of the media is the supposed social recognition it provides. Experiencing heartfelt honesty and unsparing openness as part of a community can certainly have a more lasting impact on the feeling of being recognised than any smartphone.

Around this, small groupings of like-minded people can develop which encounter one another with mistrust and mutual reproaches. Or a living community that sets out together to find a good way of dealing with the challenges of digitalisation.

About the author: Felicitas Bayer studied business administration and health sciences after graduating from the Hannover-Bothfeld Free Waldorf School. She is the mother of three children. Until 2020, she worked at the Offenburg Free Waldorf School as an economics and media studies teacher. Since September 2021, she has been working as a trainer for media education, career guidance and communication in Munich.

Contact: felicitas.bayer(at)gmx.de

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