As schools rush to put digital devices in the hands of every student, many parents are becoming increasingly concerned about the quality of their children's education. The promise of increased student achievement through the use of technology hasn't really produced any significant results in the past 20 years. And, even more troubling, studies show that increased screen time is harmful to children's social and physical development.
Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles conducted a study in 2014 to determine if the social skills of elementary students were hampered by screen time. Two groups of sixth grade students were compared. One group was sent to an outdoor camp for one week with no screen time, while the control group lived life as normal. Both groups took pre- and post-tests that required emotional intelligence to make inferences about body language and facial expressions.
After one week without their devices, the students at camp had made significant improvements over their peers. The good news is that when we limit access to screen time and give children the opportunity to interact face-to-face, they quickly become better at reading non-verbal cues and determining the emotional state of others. The bad news is that we have a generation of children in our schools that struggle with this basic emotional intelligence skill.
The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages any screen time for kids under 2 years of age, and suggests that entertainment media should be limited to just 2 hours a day for older kids. Too much screen time has been linked to childhood obesity, sleep disorders, behavior problems, and academic challenges. But is there a difference between schoolwork and entertainment media?
Eric Lawson, the Coordinator of Instructional Media and Technology Services at the York School District, says that "interactive screen time versus passive screen time makes a world of difference." Students engaged in learning activities and the creation of content are actively participating, whereas students watching media are passive recipients. When students are using technology for academic work they are more likely to be interacting with peers, working cooperatively, and developing critical 21st century skills.
Parents have every right to be concerned about their children's screen time at school, but they may want to begin by addressing the use of digital media at home. Common Sense Media suggests weekly screen-time limits, limits on the kinds of screens they can use, and guidance on the types of activities they can do or programs they can watch. Dr. Steiner-Adair says "Some parents are perpetually tuned into their own devices, responding to every ping of their cellphones and tablets, receiving and sending messages..." This explains why their children are also glued to their screens.
The argument over screen time will continue to rage, but if that's all it is we're missing the point. It's not how long you spend using a device, it's what you do with it that really matters.
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