Viewing Opportunity: PSTT on MCTV

Screen Shot 2019-03-24 at 9.22.07 AMOur PSTT co-founders were busy in the community last week! While Julie assisted the high school in preparing digital citizenship curriculum tools for their Advisory program, Samantha and Amy were at Middlebury Community Television taping an episode of the show Growing Bright Futures. Cheryl Mitchell interviewed us about our work in the community supporting families, kids, and schools. We’re also gearing up to participate in a local event on April 10th for parents of kids in grades 6-12, so stay tuned for those details.

Huge thanks to Middlebury Union High School, ACSD, Building Bright Futures, and Middlebury Community Television for engaging with us as we help build practices of intentional technology use here in our community.

Digital Minimalism

Last month, Cal Newport’s new book Digital Minimalism was published. I’ve just ordered a copy and in the meantime wanted to share a link to a podcast episode called “How Social Media is Ruining Your Life” in which he discusses his work. Despite the unfortunate title, the episode is worth a listen. Newport explores the ways new technology is created and how it can be used to enhance our lives. He also explains how technology can create barriers to connecting with others in real time, can inhibit deep thinking, and may explain the rise in anxiety we’re seeing in teens. I don’t agree with all Newport’s points, but I did appreciate hearing so many of his ideas come together in under an hour.

I was struck by the connection Newport makes to the new Netflix series Marie Kondo about what brings you joy and what makes your life more cluttered. Why not look at your core values and then make choices about what apps you want to have on your cellphone, rather than keeping every single one you might someday use? For example, you might really want the meditation app to help you focus and stay calm, if that’s in line with your core values. But perhaps there are other apps you can do without, or could limit to laptop use only. This streamlined way of using your phone might free you up to be more present with those around you and even allow moments of boredom–imagine that–which are essential for processing and mental health. I’m looking forward to reading his book. Let me know what you think!

Post by Samantha Farrell-SchmittIMG_2056

Phones & birthday parties: to mix or not to mix?

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Photo by Dan Prado on

Recently we hosted our 7th grade daughter’s 12th birthday party, to which 10 classmates were invited. Aside from figuring out what to feed everyone and where to cram all their sleeping bags, Brian and I wrestled with the decision about how to handle phones. We know at least some of the girls, including our kid, don’t yet have their own phones, but we wanted to find a way to keep phones from playing a big role in the event. And we didn’t want to come off as judge-y of other families. Our chief motivations for restricting phone use were 1) to allow the party-goers to focus on real, interpersonal interactions without the distraction of devices and 2) to avoid the need to closely monitor online activity that could result in kids accessing social media or other content best saved for high school or beyond.

After some mental gymnastics, reading this article, and talking with a couple of other parents of phone-free kids, we decided to send an email to all the other parents, which included the following: “Just a heads up that we are hoping to have this be a phone-free event. We’ll plan to collect any phones when kids arrive and keep them safely in our entryway or kitchen. If your daughter wants to access her phone for a moment to text or call you to say goodnight, or to reach you for another reason, that’s certainly fine. You’re very welcome to call or text us at 802-123-4567 if you want or need to.”

We didn’t hear complaints from other kids or parents, and the overall response was favorable and grateful. Moms and dads said things like “THANK YOU for the party being phone free!” and “I love that this is going to be phone-free!” and “I can’t even imagine girls at a sleepover all on their devices….what is the point of a sleepover like that?!” 

It wasn’t a completely tech-free evening. The girls listened to some music on bluetooth speakers playing from an iPod, and they watched a cheesy movie they chose that was deemed age-appropriate by the convenient online resource CommonSense Media.

Aside from the usual sleepover fallout of not enough shuteye, the party was free of major drama and there was lots of laughter and fun. The benefits certainly outweighed any discomfort for us and, we hope, for the kids. We won’t hesitate to do the same for future events. 

We at PSTT wonder, what has and hasn’t worked in your house in terms of phone use and online access at your kids’ gatherings? What might you do differently? 

Post by Amy Mason

The New Digital Divide


Yikes, it’s been ages since our last blog post! Lest you fear your PSTT team has been slacking, let us reassure you that we’ve been doing lots of behind-the scenes work to follow up on suggestions parents and educators had at last year’s community events. Chiefly, we’re in the midst of conversations with MUHS and ACSD to help support initiatives that optimize the digital experience of our students. Stay tuned for updates! In the meantime, we wanted to make sure no one missed this powerful article in the October 26 issue of the New York Times.

For many years, talk of a gap between kids from  lower income and higher income families stemmed from the concern that students from higher income families would have greater access to technology at home and school, and therefore be better prepared for a world that prizes tech skills. This led to lots of investments by school systems and other organizations to help assure students across the board had equity in terms of access. “One-to-one” initiatives, in which there’s a dedicated computer for every student in a school, are becoming the norm, and in fact ACSD’s Digital Learning plan, adopted in January, calls for budgeting that will “sunset current lease agreements on user devices to shift that spending model toward cloud-based and affordable devices in order to put more devices in more students’ hands.” Vermont’s Agency of Education advises, “All Vermont schools should be providing full-time or near full-time access to technology for all students, especially those in Grades 3 and higher. This does not necessarily mean that technology is being used in a full-time manner, but that the availability is there as it is needed to support learning.” The focus in the world of education has been on increasing access as a means toward equity.

According to this NYT writer, however, the divide in more recent days has shifted to benefit students whose parents and educators are more likely to be present in the student’s digital world to set limits and help students learn to set their own limits. The article quotes former Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson as having said, ““The digital divide was about access to technology, and now that everyone has access, the new digital divide is [about] limiting access to technology.” Families with greater means are increasingly choosing private schools where screen-free learning modalities are emphasized, and public school systems in more affluent communities are responding to parental pressure to restrict access to devices during the school day, to teach about digital citizenship and to show more restraint in balancing technology with a focus on other types of learning.

In a recent issue of her Tech Talk Tuesdays blog, a source we PSTT founders find truly worthwhile, Dr. Delaney Rushton also delves into the ways in which some families are exercising greater restraint around the use of technology. Check that out if you’d like to read more.

PSTT’s overarching message at this point can be summed up as, “Thanks for working to ensure kids have equitable access. Let’s make sure we’re truly intentional about how to use that access, knowing that more is not always more, and staying true to a healthy 24-hour digital diet.” The PSTT team wants to know: what are your thoughts on this disparity of opportunity for families? How should we address this in our schools, homes and community? This is a topic we’ll continue to keep front and center in our work to support ACSD families and schools.

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks

Apple Screen Time Controls

IMG_2056.jpegThe latest blog post by Screenagers director Dr. Delaney Ruston lays out the hows and whys of Apple iOS 12’s new Screen Time function. We’ve started using this in our house and it’s been a good conversation starter, and also a reality check! I like that you can set up a family plan to check in on the other connected devices, and I appreciate being able to look at a single day’s use or a week’s worth. We’re uncovering some limitations, too, like the fact that once the screen goes dark, the tracking of audio, for example, is no longer being tallied. Since we’re interested in knowing about ALL the ways our kids are using devices, including listening to audiobooks, the tool is falling short a bit. But it’s still early days and we are still getting used to it. Dr. Ruston’s blog post has step-by-step instructions if you’d like some help getting started. Has anyone else tapped into this new Screen Time tracker? If so, what are your initial impressions?

Post by Amy Mason



Last Book Group post! Chapter 9: Growing Up in Public

man standing beside his wife teaching their child how to ride bicycle
Photo by Agung Pandit Wiguna on

As a pretty private person, the topic of Chapter 9 makes me want to take my kids on a hike out of 4G range and camp out there for the next decade or so.  But here we are, with wifi at home, both adults in the house with smart phones, and two kids living in a society in which privacy means something very different than it did when I was their age.  I’ve found Heitner’s book provides genuinely helpful ideas about how to give my family training wheels as we grow into new digital arenas, and this chapter is no exception.

As usual, her suggestions ask us to approach teaching our kids about digital interactions and the boundaries we want around them in the same manner we teach about interactions and boundaries we want our kids to have in real life.

We want our kids to have a thorough understanding of what it means to ask for and to give consent, whether in person or with a texted photo. We want our kids to be empathetic when deciding  about passing along someone’s news/gossip, whether at a party or in a group text.  We want our kids to be mindful of ways they might cause others’ feelings of being left out and how to react when our kids are the ones feeling left out themselves. And there are new skills to learn, too: kids often communicate through images.  We want our kids to be practiced in deciphering images shared by others and aware of the implicit messages of photos they share themselves.

Heitner points out that social media will not change a child, but it can “turn up the dial on whatever is already happening with your child socially. ” She reiterates the idea that there is nothing new under the sun when mentioning, for example, popularity,  pressure by crushes, and being judgmental of others.  Each of these has been a concern of teens since long before the digital age, and teens need real support around how to handle these challenges, whether the consequences are digital or otherwise.

The author also points out that a parent’s biggest concern might be the end game: how will your digital actions now shape others’ views of you in the future?  Kids, on the other hand, are  acutely aware of the implications of their actions on their current situations, and make decisions accordingly.  Knowing what motivates our kids and how vitally important their social world is to them can help us as we think about how best to support them.

This chapter is rich with questions that could be great conversation starters, helping you get to know your child’s digital world and how she interacts within it.  “Do you feel like it’s rude not to connect on social media if someone initiates a connection with you?”  “Have you ever seen someone try to be funny in a group text but hurt someone’s feelings instead?” And more.

These questions could help facilitate a relationship that allows what we want most of all: we want our kids to be able to come to us when they need support.

Posted by Julie

p.s.  The conclusion to the book is a basic “Best of” list.  She bullet points her main ideas from throughout the book and it works really well as a little refresher.  I finished reading feeling as if I had a solid understanding of the most important take-aways.  We’d love to get some PSTT folks together in person during the school year to share thoughts.  Let us know if you’re interested!

Bookclub Chapter 8: School Life in the Digital Age

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Photo by Pixabay on

In Chapter 8: School Life in the Digital Age, Heitner highlights some benefits and challenges of devices for students, particularly in schools that have instituted 1:1 programs (meaning each student has a dedicated device for classroom use). Knowing that our own school district (ACSD) is moving to 1:1 this year, I was particularly interested in this aspect and will be curious to see how the strategy plays out in our community.

With regard to homework, students can benefit from increased access after hours to teachers and peers, and Heitner reminds us that kids may need help understanding certain boundaries such as:

  1. when to reach out to peers vs. the teacher with questions (tip: try other options before contacting the teacher!);
  2. when tech tools are serving to enhance learning and productivity and when they’re leading to cheating/intellectual dishonesty; and
  3. which tasks are better suited to paper and pencil/unplugged time (such as editing drafts) and which are well-served by using a device?

Heitner reminds us that schools are tending to grow more communicative about grades and progress, and sharing more frequent updates about school happenings, but that the increased connection can sometimes lead to parents being overly focused on small matters vs. larger progress, and to being overloaded by the sheer volume of information. In the same regard, having more access to our kids during the day to “check in” isn’t necessarily a boon as they’re developing independence from us. 

Distraction is one of the biggest challenges of devices. While crafting this post, I heard my email ding four times—which I resisted reading, except the notification popup—and received one unimportant text which I looked at but managed not to answer. Each time my brain lost its place, and it took me a moment to get back on course. Multi-tasking comes at a cost, Heitner reminds us, and bopping back and forth between tasks can result in a project taking longer (and possibly being less cohesive) than if we’d avoided distraction. She suggests using a “one device at a time” guideline to avoid what she calls “double screening.” She also says we can tap into tech tools to help with that, like using apps to block social media during certain time periods, restricting apps to certain devices, or even turning wi-fi off for a time period. She also cautions us to clue into our kids’ homework time and if it seems an assignment is taking longer than it should, we might want to check in. She urges us to mentor kids on how to streamline the homework process, so devices improve rather than inhibit productivity.

Heitner urges parents to be curious and proactive about how tech use is handled in our schools. As ACSD moves into the 1:1 realm, and navigates this transition without the benefit of the recently departed (and valued by PSTT) Innovation Specialist Tim O’Leary, I think it will be more important than ever to ask a) what are the policies and practifor tech use during the day at each school and b) how well are these policies being followed? Most importantly, we need to be asking, as the author suggests, “How does 1:1 affect the recommendations we always hear about limiting screen time?” A priority of this group is to think about our kids’ 24-hour digital diet and be intentional about how and when kids use screens at school and home. It’s great to hear Heitner thinks we’re on the right track!

Post by Amy Mason

A little followup note: I can’t resist taking a moment to express my frustration about the final paragraphs in this chapter. Heitner calls the segment “But What Am I Supposed to Do?” and then she dishes up what she calls “Some big picture tips for navigating parenting a connected student.” And with this setup, where do we go? Well, Heitner lists a single tip (pointing us to a different book, which sounds great, but still!) embedded within 8 other bullet points that are questions without answers. Ms. Heitner, I love your book. But if you’re gonna caption a section like this, and promise some big picture tips? Please give us some answers rather than more questions! Were any other readers struck by this? We’d love to hear your thoughts!


Book Group Chapter 7: Friendship and Dating in the digital Age

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Photo by on

This chapter was key for me as a parent of two teenagers.  The author talks about exclusion and how a teenager can be participating in a group text but still feel left out, while another might be blissfully unaware that anything is amiss.  This was a good reminder for me to check in and possibly help my child connect with others outside of school or in other communities. Sometimes the internet can help our kids connect to others that they more readily identify with, while other times it feels isolating. One of the main differences we as parents should be aware of, Heitner says, is that before the digital explosion kids could come home and hide/recover from the drama at school, but now the drama continues 24/7 online and therefore is hard to get away from. I liked her suggestion that if your child feels negatively impacted by social media, it’s important to help them unplug in the evening. A permanent disconnection or the deletion of an app will probably feel too extreme for your child, but framing it as a temporary measure might be the best way forward for your child.

Heitner points to the concept of friends and how that might have changed for our children, and she suggests that as parents we should explore and discuss the concept of friendship as part of our value set. For LGBQT kids, the internet can be a positive source of validation, information and community. However, it can also be a source of bullying, so parents should be aware of the difficulties their kids might encounter while they try and navigate different identities in different situations—particularly on social media. Heitner mentions some resources: safe schools, impact program and glsen as well as a book (titled This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids.)

Research around dating shows that most tweens and teenagers are still meeting in person, not through the internet. The difference seems to be around the expectations for constant connectivity when dating. It can be useful to remind your teen that just because we CAN reach out at all times doesn’t mean we have to.

When harassment takes place online, parents can and should help their kids by guiding them and setting boundaries when necessary. Heitner suggests opening the conversation with questions like, “Have you or your friends ever had to block someone for coming on too strong or being too persistent?” She reminds us that mentorship seeks to build communities, not form divisions. So if another parent approaches us about our own child’s online behavior, being open rather than defensive—as well as reporting back—will help build community and open lines of communication between parents. This chapter is worth reading, as there are many more useful pieces of information.

By Samantha Farrell-Schmitt


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