How Much Screen Time Is Too Much for Kids?

Technology Tips

How Much Screen Time Is Too Much for Kids?

By Bridget McCrea     Dec 3, 2018

How Much Screen Time Is Too Much for Kids?

The digital divide between rich and poor students isn’t what it used to be. As more devices find their way into homes, screen time across the socioeconomic spectrum is growing. But some more affluent parents are starting to pull back, setting stricter limits on device use both in and out of the classroom.

That was the focus of a recent New York Times article, which noted that even as America’s public schools promote the use of devices, others are banning screens from class. In the article, Nellie Bowles discussed how “throwback” play-based preschools are trending in affluent neighborhoods; parents in Kansas City launched a program called Stand Together And Rethink Technology (START); and another group of parents in Missouri have joined forces to figure out how to reduce their children’s screen time.

As educational technology continues to proliferate, and as today’s careers demand tech-savvy job candidates who already know how to use devices, the argument over the right amount of screen time is getting louder. To gain some consensus on the issue, EdSurge reached out to a handful of education and industry experts for their opinions. We talked to them about the race to equip students with devices, the role that content plays in the overall equation, what schools with limited resources should know about these trends and what’s in store for the future.

Here’s what they shared with us.

EdSurge: How is the race to equip every student in the classroom with a device playing out right now?

Richard Culatta, CEO, ISTE: I would disagree with the suggestion that there has been a “race to equip every student with a device in the classroom.” While it’s true that schools are increasing access to technology, the driving force is generally to support new types of learning—it’s not a race. In fact, I’m not even sure who they would even be in a race with. And I’m definitely not seeing schools discontinuing their focus on effective use of technology. If there is any trend, it’s a recognition of the importance of focusing on teacher training to ensure that tech investments are used well. Some schools, in their initial attempts to use technology, focused more on choosing devices and apps than on preparing teachers. This is a model that simply doesn’t lead to good learning outcomes.

Anya Kamenetz, journalist and author, “The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life”: I'm not seeing any trend away from devices in the classroom. I was recently at a very affluent private school touting its high-speed Wi-Fi and brand-new makerspace, which is the norm for better-resourced schools that I visit. The New York Times article cherry-picked examples of Waldorf schools. Waldorf education is nothing new, and the Association of Waldorf Education of North America lists just 172 schools around the country. What I am seeing is increasing anxiety about students' own phones in the classroom and the distraction that brings, and skepticism from parents about the value of laptops for homework.

Benjamin Heuston, CEO, Waterford Institute: We're going to continue to see a lot of gyrations in this area until the technology gets easy enough that it disappears and becomes transparent. In education, we are still so early, and it's such a nascent area that people still think it's important to talk about what kind of device you have, or what modality that device is. Really, what we need to be talking about the problems we want to solve, and choosing the tool that's most appropriate for solving those problems. And sometimes that’s going be a digital tool. But the fact that it's digital doesn't make it good or bad. Technology is an extremely powerful modality, but in and of itself, it's not good or bad. It just depends on how you're using it and whether you're using it appropriately or not. That context seems to be missing in our Twitter-verse right now.

How can schools, teachers, and parents find the right “balance” for today’s digital natives?

Emily Weinstein, Project Zero and postdoctoral fellow, Harvard Graduate School of Education: It’s easy to just talk about screen time as if it’s an amorphous sort of general thing, but I think often when we focus on that we lose sight of how important it is to attend to what kids are actually doing when they're using those screens.

Now, it's obvious when we look at extreme examples, but just take the case of social media and imagine a child who spends 15 minutes on Instagram. There's a huge difference (in terms of that child’s wellbeing at least) between spending 15 minutes on Instagram looking up inspirational content on running and working out, versus the same amount of time looking at depressogenic and/or self-harm oriented content.

Put simply, the content itself matters more than the time spent looking at the screen. With this in mind, the point of whether or not to have the technology—or to limit its usage to, say, two hours a day—is less relevant than the idea that all screen time is not equal. There are some extremely positive uses of technology that empower kids at all different ages, but there are also some very disempowering and upsetting uses of technology.

Culatta: While it is important to have balance in all aspects of our lives, we find that the amount of screen time question is not nearly as helpful as the question about what students are doing with the screen time they have. For example, if a student is clicking through a digital textbook or doing the equivalent of digital worksheets, I would hope that she would have very little screen time. If, on the other hand, she was using technology to problem-solve, collaborate, and engage with peers around the world, then I would hope that she would have much more screen time.

Heuston: Learning is social and always happens in the context of other people and other people's ideas. That piece can be strengthened and bolstered by well-designed and well-executed technological programs, but when you start saying, “Let's hand it all over to technology,” you really can’t envision a future that isn't dystopian.

As a huge proponent of technology, even I'm saying that it’s right in its place, in the right dosages and with the right intentionality and thoughtfulness. But technology is only one arrow in a quiver—it's only part of the tapestry. We need to keep a balanced approach and keep our sanity about it.

Technology can help you do some things more easily. But when you use it, the expectations for what you want to do go up exponentially. I think we all need to recognize and honor the very hard work that parents and teachers are doing today, and I don't think that work is going away. Our expectations for what kids are doing are only going to increase.

Should there be allotted hours for "entertainment" screen time and “educational” screen time?

Culatta: The real question related to use of technology in education is about the type of learning experience provided to the student whether analog or digital. When educators have appropriate professional development and the time to develop meaningful and engaging learning experiences for students (where tech plays a role), then the benefits can be incredible. One of the biggest issues in education today is the fact that teachers come to a digital classroom with digital natives and are not prepared to jump in with clear goals and an understanding of how to appropriately use tech in learning.

Kamenetz: I think about the positive uses of screen time in terms of creation, connection, discovery, and joy. Creative uses of technology include audio and visual recording and mixing, coding, web and app design, word processing, drawing, robotics and 3D modeling. Connective uses of technology are for communication purposes, which range from gaining fluency with social media, to composing an essay or a presentation, to writing an email. Discovery means accessing the internet, or some educational software, to learn things, practice new skills and answer questions. And “joy” covers the joy of being a fan and appreciator of music, video, and written content, as well as playing games.

I believe in a balance of all four while trying to drive down the mindless, pointless or negative uses of technology to fill time, fight boredom, displace other needed activities or foster hostility, depression and other negative feelings.

What should schools that have fewer resources to invest in tech know about these screen trends?

Culatta: Regardless of the school’s resources, the most important part of tech implementation is an investment in the teachers, not the devices. Even schools with limited technology can create amazing tech-enabled learning experiences when teachers know how to use tech effectively.

Kamenetz: Resources should go primarily to train and support teachers in being gutsy in integrating tech into the classroom. Handheld devices are about as ubiquitous as television in the lives of all students so the focus should be on helping students use tech to pursue their own learning goals.

Public schools in less affluent areas are less likely to have money for the latest equipment, but more importantly for training to help teachers foster creative and constructive learning opportunities with screens. With more pressure to hit literacy and numeracy targets imposed by the Common Core and high-stakes testing, computer time is more likely to be devoted to low-level drill-and-kill literacy and numeracy software—or somewhat robotic, easy-to-game multiple choice “credit recovery programs” for high school students. I see passionate teachers uniting on social media to exchange creative ideas for using the engaging properties of technology to hook their kids into lessons.

What else should districts and teachers should be thinking about going forward?

Heuston: The standards have been raised. Luckily, research shows that young children are capable of a lot, and so let's get them started earlier. We're going to need better tools in order to get better outcomes, and technology will help fill that gap.

But still, it's going to take a lot of work. People should hold technology accountable. But technology is never going to erase the relationships that we desperately need to foster and strengthen, or just the sheer energy and work that's required to raise the rising generation.

Kamenetz: I think we're seeing that digital devices are not magic beans that transform the classroom experience and enhance student learning all by themselves. These are essential elements of the way that we live and work today. I hope that there's a growing awareness which requires very human virtues such as empathy and creativity to instill tech into the classroom in a productive way.

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