Mar 09, 2016


Thinking About Screens (Part 1 in a Series of Queries)

by Kiri Harris, Dean of Middle School

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about screens. I looked up the word screen and saw many meanings, all connected by surprising contradictions. Screens of devices are made for viewing, while partition screens shield or hide things from view. In verb form, there’s screening that showcases something new (like a film), and there’s screening that conceals, filters, or shelters. In basketball, screens block one path in order to clear another. In movies, the silver screen opens the way to stories that we can see but can’t change. Finally, a mesh screen says it all so concretely, because it simultaneously lets things through and hold things back.

These contrasts call to mind the rewards and challenges of interacting through screens. So much more is possible because we’re in an online world and connected by a screen. So much else is missing because we’re in two dimensions and distanced by a screen. Of course, it’s not simply the screens we’re talking about, but the climates and cultures they hold and coax us to join. What’s possible and what’s missing — this seems like a balanced framework for noticing our onscreen worlds and the impact they have in our lives.

While contemplating screens, I’ve become more attuned to my own uses of them, and I’ve looked for opportunities to talk with my own kids. Here are some queries I tested out, which I invite all Greene Street families to think about together:

  • What’s possible on screens and what’s missing from screens?
  • How do actions on screens compare to actions in real life?
  • How do screens allow connection and how do they allow distance?

Two recent moments nearly collided to make me think about this. My daughter saw an action in real life as we drove to school. She suddenly burst into words, telling me that she saw a man tie a dog to a pole, and then he looked like he hit the dog on the head. Real tears fell as she described how the dog shrank back from the man’s hand. I fumbled with what to say. I wanted to help her feel better, and I didn’t want to lie, gloss it over, or judge someone without the full story. I ended up telling her how much I love that she cares about all people and animals. It felt like an inadequate parent moment, but it was real.

That same night, my kids asked to play a pet app called “Talking Tom Cat” on the iPad. Something made me look at the game more closely. Mostly, you say things and the talking cat repeats them in a helium voice. But doing hurtful things to the cat is also an option. For example, as explained on,“Players can 'slap' the onscreen cat, who will say 'oof' when 'punched' in the stomach or fall over and see stars when hit in the face.” When I asked my daughter why she didn't mind that hitting the cat was part of the game, she said “we don’t really do that part,” and then she added “it’s so funny.” 

These moments practically happened side by side: my daughter’s real life connection with an animal and her online distance from one. I’m not saying that Talking Tom is evil (though he is pretty annoying), and I do believe we all need to laugh at slapstick comedy sometimes. I get that a cartoon cat is a way different animal than a real life dog. But I wonder: is there something about a screen that emboldens us to deliver the slap ourselves, when our empathy would bring us to tears if we saw it in real life?

Maybe it’s not simply the individual distance afforded by a screen, but the cumulative distance of everyone involved, adding up to a whopping distance that’s far greater than each person’s individual remove. When it seems like everybody else is delivering slaps onscreen, and when the slaps suddenly turn your way, it must get so much harder to say: “that hurts, actually, and I wish you’d stop.” 

There are interesting efforts going on worldwide to lead us toward more empathetic responses when interacting online. Someone recently shared with me an article called “Play nice! How the internet is trying to design out toxic behaviour” from the UK edition of The Guardian. It features examples of these efforts, including a startup called Civil Comments. This approach uses peer and self-review to place human interactions at the center of the onscreen culture. Thoughtful design elements can help to make high-tech spaces more “high-touch” (Naisbitt, 1999).

I’m intrigued to learn how we can maximize what’s possible through screens while bridging what’s missing. I think we’re well positioned at GSFS to do this.  If you have conversations at home about the queries above, I’d really love to hear about them. You’re welcome to send reflections on the queries or other related thoughts to me at

By the way, has awesome resources for thinking about technology use, including an engaging scenario game you can play with kids called "Digital Compass." Characters have interesting dilemmas and the player(s) can navigate the different paths of decisions, learning the outcomes of each. They recommend the game for children in grades 6 - 9, but I think it’s a great way to enter decision making discussions with kids from 4th grade up. Click here if you’d like to check it out.