News Detail

Digital Wellbeing

Sean Freese, Director of Technology
It’s a difficult time to be a futurist. From Russian troll farms to rabid fan backlashes to deep fake videos, we are awash in stories of technology run amok. Tools that once promised to make the world more democratic and fair seemed to have had the exact opposite effect. Our institutions at all levels are struggling to grasp—let alone manage—the implications of rapid advances in technology. And, in the center of this tempest sit our students.

How do we, as parents and educators, hope to build skills in young people that we adults have yet to master ourselves? It’s bewildering and anxiety-inducing and yet I still believe there is cause for optimism. At Sonoma Academy, through meaningful conversations and realistic expectations around technology, we nurture a culture that emphasizes balance and builds relationships through shared experience.

From its inception, Sonoma Academy has always embraced technology as a useful tool, yet we have always been clear-eyed about its limitations. Every SA student has a laptop but our teachers know that there are times when it’s best to put pen to paper—freewriting in humanities, sketching in art—and times when quality discussion requires every student to be fully present, lids closed, with no distractions. We help our students identify these times in our classrooms, setting norms around technology together. When technology is used, the tool is carefully chosen and matched to the task at hand, whether it’s presentation software, a graphing calculator or the laser cutter. We teach our students to think critically about technology by asking them to become active producers rather than passive consumers of a wide-range of media, reflecting on how their creative choices affect others. From classrooms to community meeting, in the commons and the studios, the message is consistently reinforced: be present, be engaged in the here-and-now with your fellow human beings. And, when we look around campus, more often than not, nearly every face is looking up, not down at a screen.

Which is not to say that our students don’t wrestle with distractions, with the same pressures to be constantly connected online and with the same negative effects on well-being brought about by social media comparison that we all do. As technology director, I see the ability to manage these challenges as a critical skill our students need to develop in order to succeed in college and their careers, a skill that requires practice and proper support to develop. For that reason, I largely avoid technology tools that block and restrict students’ access—though we do have some filters in place through the Sonoma County Office of Education, who provides our Internet connection, to prevent exposure to inappropriate content and limit the pull of social-media applications. Instead, I favor tools and conversations that help students understand their own use and establish their own boundaries around technology. I have found this collaborative approach heads off an adversarial game of cat-and-mouse that I am destined to lose and leads to better outcomes overall.

For many of our younger students, high school is the first time that their access to technology is not strictly managed by adults and it does take time for them to adjust to their newfound freedom. Over time, however, we do see them find their balance. Nearly all of the concerns that we see raised around technology use involve a limited number of freshmen and sophomores; such reports are very rare with Seniors. Part of this is developmental, part of it is just because they have so many other pressing things to do. Just as important, however, are the structures we’ve put in place to help students find that balance. And, when students do lose their footing, we support them through the process of addressing any harm caused with a focus on repairing relationships within and beyond the community.

This last Wednesday, I led a conversation on digital well-being with the freshmen and their senior TAs as part of our Health and Wellness program. In that conversation, I drew the students’ attention to many of the issues outlined here while their TAs shared their own hard-won wisdom when it comes to technology and helped the freshmen talk through challenging scenarios based on actual events here at SA. 

I hope this is only the start of a much-longer dialog. I encourage you to engage in a similar conversation with your own families: what are your family norms around technology? What are the benefits and what are the costs of the applications you all use? Are there screen-free times when you can connect face-to-face or engage in a shared activity? Are there spaces in your home that are screen-free zones? How do you keep each other accountable for your choices around technology?

As you start to navigate these complex issues with your families, please know that I am available as a resource should any questions or challenges arise. 

2500 Farmers Lane 
Santa Rosa, CA 95404 
(707) 545-1770

Sonoma Academy Is...

...the only private, independent, college preparatory high school in Sonoma County. On our beautiful campus nestled at the base of Taylor Mountain in Southeastern Santa Rosa, our students are able to explore their interests and passions in a rigorous and inspiring environment that develops a lifelong love of learning and prepares them for college and beyond.

Sonoma Academy admits students of any race, color, religion, ethnicity or national origin, citizenship, gender or gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, or disability, to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school. The school does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, ethnicity or national origin, citizenship, gender or gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, or disability in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and tuition assistance programs, and athletic and other school-administered programs.