Tech Addiction and Digital Well-being

The other day we finally had a glimpse of beautiful, spring weather.  I literally pried the Xbox remotes from my sons’ hands and shoved my boys through the front door to go play with their neighborhood friends outside.  In addition to recognizing their dire need for a dose of vitamin D, my concern about their overall well-being, particularly a need to unplug from electronics, moved my hand to lock the door behind them!  After changing into shorts and sneakers, I headed out myself for a jog. Twenty minutes later, a few doors down, I jogged past my sons and their friends sitting on the grass in the shade of a tree… STARING AT THEIR PHONES!

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For a while now, a big topic of conversation has been the pros and cons of technology as it has come to shape the lives of kids today.  As a school librarian, experiencing the shift from “book lady” to “digital turnkey,” I have experienced how my newer role in the lives of my students has shifted as well.  I have witnessed firsthand the profound benefits of access to diverse and reliable information in an instant, the breaking of boundaries through long-distance communication and seamless digital collaboration, and the realization of visions and dreams through access to cutting-edge technologies.  Sadly though (devastating, actually), is the subsequent “brain hijacking” that can result from over-reliance and escapism through tech. I must confess that I, myself have been among the afflicted. Many a night I have found myself scrolling through nonsense while a half-read novel sat unopened on my nightstand.

At Google’s Annual Developer Conference, Google I/O, this past month, an interesting thing happened revealing an interesting shift in perspective on the part of those responsible for hijacking our brains.  

Sameer Samat, Google’s VP for Android and Google Play, gave a firsthand account of the surprising relief he experienced when compelled to surrender his phone on a vacation.  His story was a prelude to the unveiling of a collection of new features falling under the category, “digital well-being.” Placing your phone face-down will activate “Shush” mode so you will not hear alerts. You can also track your usage and even place limits on time-sucking applications.   

In addition to special features such as the ones Android has introduced, there has been a surge in new apps targeted toward users seeking a little zen.  During the Google Play Award Ceremony, one of the winning apps was Simple Habit Meditation app, founded by Yunha-Kim. The app contains guided meditations for a host of life situations ranging from “Calm Nerves” to “Breaking Up.”  The app also has meditation timers, reminders and a calendar to track progress. It is just one of a number of apps offering similar features.

As exciting as these new considerations for the tech user are, I firmly believe that the only real way to foster well being is to teach kids to do just that… to “be,” WITHOUT the distraction of any device. The first solution to ANY problem, however, is awareness. Tech companies earnestly acknowledging “digital wellness” is a step in the right direction.

Alas… when I think of brain hijacking and digital wellness, I think back to Hurricane Sandy which decimated much of Long Island.  Although my home did not endure major damage, there was the upheaval of two solid weeks without power in my development. My sons did not yet have cell phones.  It wasn’t fun all the time for certain, but there was something magical about watching my kids fill the place with origami cranes and boats and tripping over board game pieces that got away.  Lego projects resurfaced. We had longer conversations with the neighbors than we had had in all the years I had lived there as people came outside in search of human contact because they lost the digital distraction that was TV.  In short, I loved observing my children and neighbors being mindful and PRESENT.

Mindfulness: Actualized In My Library

After a long, restful, mindful holiday with my family, I am finally back to my blog! It just feels like the perfect time to reflect on my progress so far this past year implementing mindfulness in my library. As readers may know from my previous posts, my interest in mindfulness began as a personal quest for stress reduction and the Buddha-like serenity I saw so cleverly depicted on the faces of models in yoga and meditation magazines. Through personal practice I have slowly begun to achieve these and more… better sleep, better health, more compassion, and a deep, grateful appreciation for all that surrounds me. Although life isn’t perfect, and I still experience negative emotions from time to time (I am human after all), through regular meditation and mindful living practices, I bounce back quicker and feel a significant “shift” overall.

In my quest to spread the benefits of formal mindful practice and mindful living to the students in my school, I have taken a number of avenues. As part of my long-term plan to make mindfulness an inherent part of the learning and growing experience at my middle school, I have begun to implement “phase one” which is to familiarize all students, faculty, and administrators with the concept, and to provide opportunities for both organized and informal practice. Thankfully, I have been lucky to gain the support of both parents and administrators in this endeavor.

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Mindful Spaces:
First, came the creation of “meditation stations.” At each windowsill in my library, there is a bench. For years I have toyed with the idea of getting them upholstered, but it was difficult to justify the cost. This year, I applied for, and received, a mini-grant from our PTA for meditation cushions that can move from the window areas to the floor for guided meditation sessions as needed. Very cozy and so very hygge!

On the walls of these window nooks, I posted colorful QR codes leading to soothing meditation music. Our students have been issued their own Chromebooks this year which they can use to scan them. Pop in earbuds, and welcome serenity! In baskets, I have also placed coloring sheets, colored pencils, and scrap paper on which they can doodle or journal.

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Picture books, which we have often used as a fun way to teach complex ideas (think The Day the Crayons Quit to teach about unions) can be found here as well. Books such as Meditation Is an Open Sky: Mindfulness for Kids, and Master of Mindfulness: How to Be Your Own Superhero in Times of Stress are two of my personal favorites. In addition to inducing calm and mindfulness through the sheer beauty and simplicity of the the drawings, they provide clear, tangible definitions of mindfulness, and in some cases, simple strategies for practice.

Students are free to use these “mediation stations” during recess at lunch, after school, and during class with a teacher’s permission. Administrators have begun to use the spaces as a “time out” for students. A comfortable, soothing, place where students can take a moment to just breathe and be present with themselves affords them the opportunity to identify and accept their thoughts and emotions and recognize how they may be affected physically by them. They can then pause to think through their next actions. This has proven very effective at calming an angry or distressed student. The teachers have been made aware of these spaces and increasingly take advantage for their students who need it.

Collection Development:
When I was getting my masters degree in Library and Information Science I clearly remember the unit dedicated to bibliotherapy; reading text to promote mental wellness and foster an understanding of self.  Books containing characters who break poor patterns of thinking and behavior through reflection and mindfulness, along with the latest nonfiction devoted to mindful living, yoga, and meditation, provide a treasure trove for stressed children and teens who may feel they are suffering alone. I have devoted a special section of our library to texts on these topics, along with some eye-catching signage, to promote circulation. It’s working!

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Monday Morning Mindful Message:
It’s Monday morning and the homeroom bell rings. Students settle into their seats and brace for the upcoming week. Most are ready, but some… not so much. Anxiety plagues many, and what better time for inspirational words of encouragement and the promotion of a mindful attitude than the Monday morning announcements? Each Monday I read such a quote over the PA system. On a few occasions, I have followed this up by posting a QR code in the library leading to a Padlet (https://padlet.com) on which students and faculty can post a comment, reflection, graphic, or website related to the quote of the week.  I also email teachers a graphic like the one below so they can post it on their smartboards.

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Feel free to email me with questions or comments regarding mindfulness in school. The main purpose of my blog is to connect with like-minded people out there! And stay tuned for an articles on Mindfulness in the Makerspace, MINDcraft Club, and Mindfulness Professional Development.

Meditation Is an Open Sky: Mindfulness for Kids, by Whitney Stewart with pictures by Sally Rippin

This book is a complete gem.  Even though the intended audience is K through 3, I can see using this in my collection as an instruction manual for mindfulness for my middle schoolers (as well as their teachers!).  The strength of this book is the fact that it provides a variety of actual mindfulness practices for kids.  It can work as a daily guide.  Students can choose their methods based on their emotional needs at any given time.  The book describes activities such as, “Mind Drawing for Focus,” “Protection Circle for Security,” and “Friendship Meditation for Kindness.”  They are mostly visualization and breathing exercises.

Intrusive thoughts that “pop up” during meditation are likened to bubbles.  This instruction is to “pop” them when the mind wanders.  As a Reiki practitioner, energy work is a big part of my mindfulness practice and I love how this book alludes to chakras (energy centers in the body) and the importance of, and simple strategies for, sending and receiving energy.  For example, the “Wise Friend for Decision Making” exercise encourages one to envision a wise friend sending, “white light into your forehead to strengthen your body.”  The center of the eyes is the location of the Ajna Chakra, or “third eye chakra,” and it is the point for insight and intuition.  One instructed to then imagine receiving light over the throat for clear speech.  (This is the Vishuddha Chakra.)

The illustrations that accompany the text are simplistic and delightful.  The main subject is a cute elephant and his little friend (representative of the “wise friend” within) is a monkey.  The book concludes with “Questions about Meditation.”  Worded simply for a child, they are the same questions adults often have regarding the practice.  (“What do I do when I feel wriggly?” or “sore legs?”)  In short, this is a delightful little book, and a great addition to my mindful library.

The Lemonade Hurricane: A Story About Mindfulness and Meditation, by Licia Morelli

This adorable gem-of-a -picture-book is the perfect introduction to mindfulness and meditation for the littlest learners.  Beautiful, engaging artwork accompanies simple text in this book, providing for the perfect read aloud.  The book invites opportunities for valuable discussion through the experience of Emma and her little brother, Henry.  

Emma, a mindful little girl herself, often likes to stop and pause when the business of life becomes too much.  Her brother Henry, however, is what she describes as a “lemonade hurricane.”  Pictures in the book can be used to invite little listeners to discuss Henry’s positive, and sometimes negative behaviors (like knocking over Emma’s block castle).  She expresses her desire to be rid of the “hurricane” so she can enjoy her brother more.  By modeling simple mindfulness meditation techniques, Emma teaches Henry to be still.  In this state, he imagines himself seated peacefully on an elephant.  Here students could be asked where they would envision themselves to be peaceful.

A delightful author’s note at the end of the book provides a further discussion of the “lemonade hurricane” analogy. Thicht Naht Hahn, a Buddhist monk, had in his youth likened a clear glass of apple juice in which the pulp had settled, to the clarity of the mind when settling into meditation.  The glass of lemonade, when the pulp is stirred by a “hurricane,” would become clear when still.  The final page of the book introduces mindful meditation exercises that can easily be practiced with a class of little ones, followed by questions for reflection such as, “How did sitting feel?”

Any young one with a little “lemonade hurricane” sibling is sure to relate, as will the child who him or herself struggles with sitting down to “just be.”