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Head of School John Palfrey Conducts Social Media Survey on Campus

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Results from the social media survey conducted by Head of School John Palfrey.

S.Yang/The Phillipian

Results from the social media survey conducted by Head of School John Palfrey.

Every two years, Head of School John Palfrey releases a survey to the student body about its use of digital devices and the Internet.

According to Palfrey, the aim of this survey is not only to develop his research of the digital age, but also to gain a deeper understanding of the student body.

“I also hope that this will be a way in which we can continue the conversation about the ways in which technology can help education and the ways in which it can hinder your learning,” said Palfrey in an interview with The Phillipian.

Palfrey has been interested in student technology use for years, cataloguing survey updates in new volumes of his book “Born Digital.” Originally published in 2008, “Born Digital” explores the implications of a digitally savvy generation. With help from the Berkman Klein Center of Harvard University, Palfrey compares Andover’s survey with national averages of student technological use and obtains the necessary information and statistics to update new editions of his book.

This year, Palfrey has been invited by the Andover Trustees to be the featured education speaker at their annual winter meeting. The talk will be focused on “Born Digital.”

“Every year, the trustees ask a speaker to come and talk about education, and usually in the winter meeting, and it has historically been somebody from outside, and this year they asked me to do it. And they asked me to do it about this book, ‘Born Digital,’ which I’ve written. It’s come out in three different editions and I’m working on a fourth edition now… so I’m reporting on those data, but I want it to have a specific tie to Andover,” said Palfrey.

As have national averages, the increase of phone usage on campus has shot up dramatically over the last decade or so. At Andover, administrators and students alike have witnessed phones causing a decrease in face-to-face interactions such as on the paths or in Paresky Commons.

Natalie Wombwell ’01, Associate Director of Admissions, said she believes that the constant activity on phones stems from the notion that people feel like they must always be busy on this campus, even when walking on the path.

“It’s just we’re so used to feeling connected or busy all the time that when you are alone with your thoughts, which typically you are when you’re walking around campus if you’re by yourself. It’s uncomfortable. And so I think we need to kind of get back to being comfortable with quiet or just our own thoughts,” said Wombwell.

“I also think we don’t need to be this busy all the time. I think we make ourselves busy all the time and so it feeds this frenetic energy and this stress so that you’re multitasking,” continued Wombwell.

According to Palfrey, the Empathy, Balance, and Inclusion (E.B.I.) program is as an attempt to prevent students from overusing their phones, both in E.B.I. classes and on a larger scale throughout the school. His aspiration is for all students to form healthy habits that include their devices when needed and erase them when they’re not.

“I think people are pretty attached to their phones and use them a lot, and my hope is that through at least certain forms of signaling, like using device-free time, urging students, certainly in my classroom, to put their phones down before they walk in, [are] some of the things we’ve done in E.B.I.,” said Palfrey.

Andrew Housiaux, Instructor in the Religion and Philosophy Department and Currie Family Director of the Tang Institute, has done experiments with his students to see how they react to the absence of their devices. In his Existentialism and Asian Religions classes, Housiaux gave his class the option to hand in their phones for an incentive.

In an email to The Phillipian, Housiaux explained how he wanted his students to reflect on themselves as people without the distraction of their phones and to more deeply understand their relationship to them.

“I tried out the cell phone experiments with my students for two reasons. One, I wanted them to pause and reflect on their relationship to technology. Removing one of the major ways in which they interact with technology (their phones) would give them time to observe certain habits, behavior patterns, and tendencies that they might not have otherwise been able to observe if they were still in possession of their phone.” wrote Housiaux.

For Sophia Witt ’20, the experiment gave them the opportunity to realize just how reflexive reaching for their phones was, even in moments where it would seem to be unlikely.

“For me, the experiment was really eye opening to the degree of which phones are used in everyday social situations. In lines in [Paresky Commons], I remember standing awkwardly around everyone else who was just scrolling through Instagram or checking their email,” said Witt.

Like Witt, Patrick Ryan ’19 emphasized the positive impacts of this experiment. According to Ryan, Housiaux encouraged students to continually repeat giving up their phone to reinforces the idea that phones are often unnecessary.

“[Housiaux] gave everyone the option to give him his phone for a few days, but I ended up just enjoying not having my phone, so I just didn’t really collect my phone for the whole term,” said Ryan.

Ryan continued, “It feels a little strange at first. I wouldn’t characterize myself as someone who’s attached to my phone, but you kind of realize…when you’re sitting alone, you just kind of have a subconscious urge to grab your phone and use it.”

According to Tyler Murphy ’19, a student who participated in Housiaux’s experiment, he is attentive to his phone, but does not obsess over it. When Murphy went to the Island School last year, he did not use his phone at all.

“I think at Andover, like any high school, kids are really glued to using their phones in all of their free time. I feel like… One of the biggest problems is using them on the path. When you’re only going 30 seconds to your next class, you should be looking up,” said Murphy.

Wendy Cogswell, Public Safety Community Relations Officer, said she feels that the biggest concern with students using their devices on campus is with their safety when crossing the street.

“You have your phone in front of you, your earplugs in, and you’re not taking the time to look and stop. Even if you push the button, just remember those folks that are driving might be on their phone too, not paying attention. Pull your earplug [out], even if it’s just one earplug so you can hear, and just put your phone down by your side until you cross the street. [It] keeps you safe, and then you’re aware of what’s going on,” said Cogswell.

Palfrey hopes to encourage people to put down their phones and spend time face-to-face. According to Palfrey, the survey included student suggestions, some of which mentioned banning phones entirely from Paresky Commons and other areas on campus.

Palfrey said, “I would be fully in favor of those kinds of things. Now, in terms of needing to be accessible to your parents and so forth at a boarding school, there are reasons why people might have their phones on them. But I do think that the times that we are together, that we should be face-to-face, certainly in classrooms, certainly at certain points in dorms. Silent Study would be an example, I think Paresky Commons would be another, All-School Meeting would be one [where we] do it to a degree, [though] I think we could probably do it a little more too.”