Sexting, Rape, Anxiety, Depression & Suicide: Elmbrook Youth are Tech-Addicted – and it Starts at School

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Recently, I spoke to the Elmbrook School Board about troubling data from the recently released 2019 Elmbrook Youth Risk Behavior Survey (conducted last April by DPI) which shows hundreds of Elmbrook Schools students are:

  • On technology devices between midnight and 5am (1,117 were)
  • Sharing nude photos & sexual images electronically (446 did)
  • Already victims of rape and sex abuse (692 reported)
  • Suffering with significant anxiety (960) and prolonged depression (491)
  • Considering suicide (290) and planning suicide (223)
  • Texting/emailing while driving (1,072)
  • Vaping nicotine and/or THC (848 have tried it) – sometimes with their school computer’s USB port.

It’s no surprise that tech addiction is a real problem among youth in our school district, with thousands of students exhibiting symptoms of poor mental health – and making unsafe choices online.

Most students in Elmbrook Schools receive a “1:1 personal learning device” – a Chromebook or iPad – in 2nd grade, like our son did – when he was just beginning to master the art of hand-writing multiple sentences clearly on a page, and doing addition and subtraction problems neatly and proficiently in a math workbook.

Within two years, we saw his reading, math and writing skills plummet, and his handwriting weaken to a primitive level. His focus, attention and stamina also deteriorated, as did his willingness to be truthful about how and when he was using his school Chromebook at home. We began to limit his home access to the device, eventually taking away the privilege entirely and simply charging it at home for use the next day at school.

In 4th grade, he was able to secretly engage in “Google Chats” on his school device with other students from his class, as well as older students who were in middle school. Some of the language his classmates used was profane and vulgar – and his teacher had no idea this was happening during the school day. We realized that anyone could communicate with our son, as anyone can fake an online identity. We understood how vulnerable our 10-year-old was with unlimited access to the Google platform on his school device.

Later, he was able to accidentally access soft-porn images while doing school-related searches in 5th grade. The content filter was not blocking all inappropriate content, and encryptors were very clever at hiding nude images in search results for non-sexual things like “homemade banjo” or “cool guitar.”

Finally, in the middle of 5th grade – after realizing he was allowed to listen to unapproved, raunchy music on Spotify during his daily writing workshop – we returned the Chromebook to the school’s office and requested that our son return to paper-and-pencil, tangible-book learning. He became a completely off-line, screen-free learner – and by the end of 5th grade, his reading score had risen 17 points. Over the summer – when most kids’ scores decline in a “summer slide” – his reading score rose two more points. In September of 6th grade he was identified as Gifted & Talented in Reading. His math performance also improved drastically this year. These outcomes seemed proof that online learning was NOT a good fit for our son.

I believed our son was not the only Elmbrook student experiencing stunted academic growth due to an unhealthy, unproductive attachment to school technology – so I began to organize with other parents, as well as meet privately with administrators and school board members. I spoke out at School Board Meetings, where I was met with a non-functioning public microphone and the censoring of my speech by our School Board President and our district’s Chief Strategy Officer. They sent me (ironic) emails explaining that the vulgar language my son was exposed to on his Chromebook (which I verbalized discreetly) was too profane for broadcast on the local cable channel that airs meeting videos.

Unsatisfied with the response from Elmbrook Schools leadership, in early March 2019 a friend and I partnered to create and circulate (with the help of other parents) a Google Survey about Parent Concerns On School Tech, which generated 345 parent responses. This survey revealed that a majority of Elmbrook parents shared our concerns about school technology, including:

  • Tangible textbooks should remain available to all students K-12
  • The content filter’s security should be upgraded
  • Device time should be limited outside of primary classrooms
  • Parents desire daily screen time reports telling exactly how long their student has used their school-provided device at school
  • Parents desire to explore tech-free learning environments as an option

We presented our parent survey’s analytics with hundreds of written responses to the Elmbrook School Board on April 9, 2019, when twelve concerned parents who had participated in our survey spoke out for 50 minutes.

Since then, our website, our group’s ongoing presence at School Board Committee meetings and Family Technology Advisory Group* meetings, our advocacy with individual Board members – has resulted in the following BIG WINS:

  • A Middle School Screen Time Study was conducted in February 2020. Results will be shared with the School Board in April 2020.
  • Student/parent focus groups will be convened to determine whether Brookfield East HS should use the same “no-phones-in-class” policy that Brookfield Central HS and both middle schools use.
  • Assistant Superintendent Mike Sereno stated on Jan 6 that future curriculum updates will need to accommodate textbook availability for all students
  • Distribution of an anonymous technology survey to all parents (done Oct 31-Nov 17) that resulted in 956 written responses
  • Shutting down streaming audio/video (YouTube, Spotify) in grades K-8
  • Upgrading (and seeking to replace) the content filter (Securly) to accurately report all sites visited
  • Option to leave tech devices at school each day or not receive one at all (these choices now added to the Student Device Use Agreement – clearly showing it is an optional agreement)
  • 2nd Grade will store devices at school until students have demonstrated desired digital citizenship skills, and then will be sent home o nly with a need/purpose.
  • Kindergarten and 1st Grade will move towards a 2:1 device ratio and will keep devices at school with charging stations.
  • Technology will no longer be used as a behavior management reward, or during indoor recess
  • Teachers now promise parents in writing how many minutes per day they will use technology in their classrooms.
  • A Family Technology Advisory Group* was formed to give feedback on school technology use, family training needs, and how to keep students safe online.

We hope that in partnership with our school district, community leaders and other parent organizations we can continue to successfully scale down the amount of technology time our children experience throughout their school day – and increase the amount of real-life social connections and tech-free activities our kids experience day-to-day.

We are pursuing additional goals for Safe + Balanced Screen Time in Schools – you can help by emailing school board members and District administrators and attending / speaking out at upcoming School Board and TLCommittee meetings:

2020 Goals for Safe + Balanced Screen Time in Elmbrook Schools

  • Using a timer on each device that reports actual daily screen time to parents and students, asprevious guidelines for 15-45 min per day were not followed in all classrooms in the
  • Limiting total daily screen time for students to one hour or less
  • Distribution of an anonymous tech use survey to all teachers and students annually
  • Setting standards for classroom technology use for all teachers
  • Exploring the concept of technology-free and low-tech learning environments as an option for parents
  • Limiting the number of apps and sites available to students
  • Keep parental filtering controls in place when the device returns to
  • Reporting student online activity to teachers AND parents

If you are interested in learning more about how school technology is affecting students in Elmbrook Schools, please attend our Community Meeting at the Brookfield Public Library on March 31 at 6:30pm, when school board candidates Leanne Wied and Jen Roskopf will answer questions about school-provided technology.

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*The Family Technology Advisory Group is a “replacement” parent & community group that was hand-picked by Elmbrook District Administrators Chris Thompson and Mike Sereno in August 2019 in response to our original parent group’s organized strength and effectiveness. This tactic is sometimes used by School Administrators in an attempt to squelch an “uprising” of parents who push for change on a specific issue.