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Catholic educators help students, families form healthy relationships with technology

Melissa Dan, president of Hill-Murray School in Maplewood, Minn., and Aiden Kelly, a sophomore this year, hold equipment used in the school's virtual reality lab Aug. 18, 2023. (OSV News photo/Dave Hrbacek, Catholic Spirit)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (OSV News) — With a mission “to steep our children in what is true, and good and beautiful” — as Sister Maria Ivana Begovic, principal of St. Croix Catholic School in Stillwater, said — Catholic educators in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis are aware of the need to help students and families form healthy relationships with technology.

“You have to have a balanced relationship,” said Melissa Dan, who just entered her third year as president of Hill-Murray School in Maplewood, a sixth through 12th grade Catholic school. “We want to encourage our students to use technology as much as it enriches their lives and learning experiences.”

“Technology is a gift, and it is a good thing to be used. And it’s something that we have to be really wise about,” said Karla Gergen, principal for the past year of St. Helena Catholic School in Minneapolis, a preschool through eighth grade school.

“Ultimately, as with all things, we want our children to become saints,” Sister Maria Ivana — a Dominican Sister of St. Cecilia who is in her fifth year as principal of St. Croix Catholic, a preschool through eighth grade school — said in an email to The Catholic Spirit, the archdiocesan newspaper. “We believe that our role is to guide our children in navigating what might be deemed by the world as ‘the latest and greatest device or social media platform or app’ by seriously discerning how such-and-such technology might be a hindrance or a help to one’s personal call to holiness.”

Beyond time spent on screens in classroom settings, young people are spending more time on screens recreationally. In 2021, research from Common Sense Media cited by the American Academy of Pediatrics indicated those ages 8 to 12 in the United States spent, on average, five and a half hours per day and those ages 13 to 18 spent, on average, eight and a half hours per day looking at screens for entertainment.

This time was spent watching TV or videos; gaming; browsing the internet or using social media; creating content; video chatting; e-reading of news, articles and books; and uncategorized use. The research also found entertainment screen use for those ages 8 to 18 increased 17% from 2019 to 2021, compared with a 3% increase for those ages 8 to 12 and an 11% increase for those ages 13 to 18 from 2015 to 2019.

To foster skills needed for responsible device use, the archdiocese’s Office for the Mission of Catholic Education developed a series of aspirational goals to help Catholic school students strive for digital well-being and personal holiness as part of a multiyear action plan, with a special focus on preschool to eighth grade schools.

According to Emily Dahdah, the mission office’s director of educational quality and excellence, the goals are: If a school permits use of internet-enabled devices, teachers are intentional about using them during instruction time and can monitor students’ use of them in the classroom; instructors increasingly refrain from assigning internet-enabled devices for student use outside of the school day and from assigning homework that might encourage independent, unsupervised use of those devices; to consider whether student-owned internet-enabled devices are allowed on school property; and to make resources available for parents who want to learn about the risks of internet-enabled devices and implement best practices at home, to build family connections.

Principals, administrators and teachers at schools in the archdiocese are asked to consider specific strategies to implement the goals, including policies to help limit students’ use of internet-enabled devices and to create a “smart device covenant” encouraging parents to continue their own education on internet-enabled devices and effects on children.

The aspirational goals “are all about formation — forming ourselves as teachers and staff as we form our parents and, with them, form our children,” Sister Maria Ivana said.

The ultimate goal, Dahdah said, is helping students “come to know the Lord by way of real human relationships” and for Catholic schools to “be places to create an intentional environment that protects children from those well-documented risks that we know exist and also then positively promotes student and family well-being.”

Gergen said the aspirational goals inspired St. Helena Catholic School to implement a no-cellphone policy on campus this past fall. Previously, the policy was cellphones could be on campus, but they had to be turned off and kept in lockers.

“But what we saw was, students couldn’t do that; they couldn’t keep them off, they couldn’t keep them in their lockers, it was just too tempting,” Gergen said.

Though Gergen admitted the new policy implementation hasn’t been perfect — “I’m not going to say there’s never a cellphone on our campus,” she said — noticeable was “an immediate difference in students and the distraction that (cellphones) provided.”

This school year, Gergen said, digital devices used in the classroom won’t be sent home with students, and teachers will assign homework that won’t require internet use.

“It’s going to be a change in teaching,” Gergen said, but added that when she brought this concept to St. Helena Catholic School teachers, “they were on board because they saw … that the benefits are going to far outweigh the challenges.” Gergen said the policy also helps support parents. “We’re going to work with you on setting limits at home and we don’t ever want school to be a reason why your kid needs to be on the internet or create that challenge for you at home.”

Gergen, who is a member of St. Pius V in Cannon Falls, said these practices are meant to support student flourishing at a Catholic school: “We want them to have (a) whole and holy life. … If we care about our kids’ souls and who they are, who they’re growing up to be, in an integral way, then really wise use of technology in our schools and families is really important to that mission.”

Dan said this often starts with modeling good use of technology. “We can’t ask our kids to do something we can’t do,” she said.

Hill-Murray is working to implement the goals through a digital citizenship curriculum, which Dan said teaches “the importance of the digital footprint” as well as “soft skills” such as good interpersonal communication, problem solving and ethics when it comes to using digital platforms. Dan said there are also plans “to do more parent dialogue and even training this year” to assist families with building solid parameters around technology use.

As technology advances, artificial intelligence and its increasing availability in everyday life has become a hot topic.

“Really what we saw with ChatGPT was such an exponential leap,” Dahdah said.

Generative AI — like ChatGPT, developed by OpenAI, a San Francisco-based AI research and deployment company — is AI that responds to a person’s typed prompts or questions by generating text, code, images and other media. Although an individual must be 18 to use ChatGPT, Dahdah recognized that “those safeguards, we know, don’t always work.”

ChatGPT can present “great possibilities” for learning assistance, Dahdah said, “but also great concern if students aren’t going to use this well.”

Dahdah said it’s important Catholic educators craft strategies that encourage development — “skills to be able to look at texts critically, to analyze arguments … to make sure that we’re doing the best that we can to help children develop in their human formation — the intellect, academic achievement, that they have those skills, but most importantly, that they’re developing those habits of mind, those intellectual virtues.”
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Rebecca Omastiak is news editor for The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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