The discussion of technology usage among children is nothing new, but efforts to actually tackle this problem are. Toms River Middle School East may have found a solution with Converlation, a program designed to make kids aware of their increased time on screens.
Created by John Schwind and Kathy Van Benthuysen, Converlation is “the exchange of thoughts, ideas, and feelings that build and strengthen relationships.” The curriculum involves videos and activities that lead students to question their use of electronics. Considering Toms River Regional District plans to roll it out to all three middle schools in the fall, it’s safe to say the program was a success.
Schwind, an entrepreneur with experience in product development, was inspired to create the program after noticing his own kids on devices. “It’s not just social media, we’re talking gaming, endless videos like YouTube, binge watching,” he says.
After implementing technology restrictions in his house and receiving attention from parents about the endeavor, he began conducting workshops about helping kids decrease time on screens. This is where Van Benthuysen, a former fourth grade teacher with 30 years of teaching experience under her belt, came in.
Having started teaching when technology was entering the mainstream, she observed its impact on children right before her eyes. She noticed a drastic change in the last ten years as smartphones and similar devices became more popular.
“Every morning, I would greet the students and expect them to look me in the eye, respond, and maybe ask how I’m doing. At the beginning of my career that was never a problem. By the end, I had to teach kids, you need to look me in the eye, you need to respond.” With children often staring down at screens and lacking face to face communication, she believes this to be the reason behind such a shift.
Converlation reaches out to these students, ages 8-14, and hopes to make them “aware that they’ve fallen into this trap, that it’s not their fault, that they’re being manipulated but here’s some things they can do to stem that tide,” Schwind says.
The booklet provided to teachers includes introductory videos explaining the program, which occurs during the school day for a select number of weeks. In A Look in the Mirror, students are first asked about their relationship with technology. “It’s huge in education now, can kids self-assess?” Van Benthuysen points out. “This allows them to grade themselves on their technology use, and then they get to do it again at the end. It’s neat for them, because they get to see their own growth.”
The Peer Pact, where students agree to venture outside with someone each week device free, promotes healthy habits. In Think and Share, an educator cites given statistics, such as that 1 in 4 Americans go 24 hours without stepping outside and 20% of 6-year-olds own a smartphone and asks students to share their thoughts.
This is followed by a video where two generations of people are asked what they like to do for fun. The older one exclusively mentions spending time outside while the younger generation talks about playing video games and watching TV shows. After, the students are asked to clear their desks.
“This is where the magic happens. We call it ‘Have a Converlation.’ The facilitator asks similar questions, like ‘what do you like to do for fun,’ and has the kids answer. Because there is no wrong thought or way to feel, everyone feels like they can share. The facilitator steps back and allows the students to have a conversation. They start sharing stuff and it goes beyond just what you’re talking about. It’s like a no judgment zone,” Van Benthuysen says.
Students are also sent home with a card labeled with the statistics and questions to encourage further discussion. Schwind highlights that “when parents go through it with their kids, two things happen. It generates conversations that they’ve never had before, and it strengthens the relationship with their child.” Van Benthuysen adds that “we address issues so parents can say, ‘oh, you talked about this at school,’ and then they have this open door and feel more comfortable. It doesn’t feel adversarial.”
Schwind emphasizes that above all Converlation is dedicated to “generating conversations. We never say tech is bad, and we don’t say you should use it less. We give them information, let them talk about it and they can come to their own conclusions. We’re hoping to get them to be introspective.” Recognizing that these conclusions must be informed, he wants kids to understand that addictions to technology are by design for people to make money.
Seeing as they’ve fully developed 20 activities and have ideas for 30 more, Schwind and Van Benthuysen show no sign of stopping. Their focus on the autonomy and decision-making skills of kids indicates the program has children’s best interests at heart. “We want to change people’s lives. We want to make people’s lives better,” Van Benthuysen affirms, and it’s clear they already have.