Disconnect to connect. The phrase seems counterintuitive, but according to founder and CEO of Social Awakening, Max Stossel, it’s a strategy that will lead to happier, healthier and more fulfilling lives. During an all-School presentation Monday, Mr. Stossel spoke to Blair students about the effect technology—social media, in particular—has on their lives, typically without anyone even noticing. His visit came a few weeks into a new academic year in which Blair has put an updated cellphone policy in place to teach healthy phone habits and cultivate even more in-person connection across our community.
“My hope is that Mr. Stossel’s visit will help our students make positive meaning from what we are asking them to do,” Associate Head of School Ryan M. Pagotto ’97 said. The new policy of “away for the day” means that cellphones are not to be seen in hallways or academic buildings; in classrooms without permission from a teacher; in community gathering spaces; or on the pathways, roads or courtyards throughout campus during the academic day. “My hope is not only that he will help students reflect individually on their own interactions with their phones and social media, but also reflect on their role as community members and how phones can pull them away from the very cool people around them and the beauty of this hilltop.”
During his presentation, Mr. Stossel acknowledged the importance of technology and the “magical” power of having the world at your fingertips. “But ask yourself this,” he prompted the crowd, “am I using technology or is technology using me?” A one time industry insider, Mr. Stossel began his career running social media and marketing many of the social media structures discussed in the presentation. He explained the gamification these companies are having on their users’ social lives, likening the addiction of scrolling feeds for acceptance and pleasure to gambling on a slot machine. “These companies are not on the same team as us,” Mr. Stossel warned the audience. “They sink into our actual relationships in ways we wouldn’t opt in to if we knew.”
Throughout the presentation, Mr. Stossel encouraged the audience to prioritize real life connections. He instructed everyone in the DuBois Theatre to turn to the person sitting next to them and share a time they felt alive, free and connected to the people they love. When the group reconvened, Mr. Stossel asked, “Did anyone bring up a time when they were on their phone?” Nobody raised their hand.
Citing studies that show that academic performance is not only affected by looking at your phone but also by having it in the room with you, the award-winning poet, filmmaker and speaker shared some advice about how students can minimize the control social media has on their lives. He suggested turning off notifications that aren’t from a human being, unfollowing Instagram or TikTok accounts that make you feel bad and finding ways to make the algorithm work in your favor. “Put your attention and energy into what you have control over,” he advised.
After his presentation, Mr. Stossel met with a smaller group of campus student leaders—along with Mr. Pagotto—to talk about social media and how the new policy is working. Most students agreed that the policy has reduced screen time and they aren’t missing their phones during the day, but the evenings and weekends are times when it is harder to stay off their devices. Together, the group brainstormed how they can acknowledge the difficulties and work together to promote healthier use and lifestyles for the community. “Being a human being means learning how to deal with hard things,” Mr. Stossel said, “and having a judgment-free space where you can recognize it’s hard and talk about these difficult things will help.”
At the center of everything we do at Blair, we prioritize the health and well-being of our community. Our students cannot reach their full potential if they can’t cope with the stress, anxiety and the pressure of living in the fast-paced and demanding world beyond Blair. As we seek to graduate students who are prepared for success in life, we hope that the discussions prompted by leaders like Mr. Stossel will help them engage in-person with the world around them and understand the appropriate use of cellphones and other devices.