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Amid Remote Learning Spike, Concerns Rise Over Screen Time

With remote learning again underway in schools across the country, many students are spending more hours each day staring at computer screens for their classes, and parents are voicing concern.

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With remote learning again underway in schools, many students are spending hours each day staring at computer screens for their classes. And reports are rampant from parents concerned about the unhealthy aspects of this practice.

Debates on children’s screen time have escalated in recent years, but having kids quarantined at home during the coronavirus pandemic has led even the most stalwart parents to reconsider screen time rules. Parents trying to work from home while raising a family have had a really tough year, and now as their kids’ schools restart online, daily screen time hours are again going up.

Schools that expect students to be online and engaged for a full school day must scale it back. This is an unhealthy situation for both students and teachers. And there are lots of better options that allow students to be online for a portion of each day while also working offline, and hopefully reading from hard copy texts.

But my purpose for this article isn’t to bemoan the lack of quality remote learning currently going on in schools. Or to discuss the right amount of time that kids at certain ages can spend looking at screens. What I want to consider is a related but even larger subject: Reading. And more specifically, how our collective reading habits have changed as we’ve made the transition from print to digital texts. And for kids just learning to read, how we need to better understand what it means to their brain development if they’re mostly engaging with digital texts.

According to a recent Guardian article by Maryanne Wolf, a respected reading research scientist, author, and professor, kids need to develop biliterate brains, allowing them to effectively read both digital and hard copy texts. And given that students in remote schooling are even more engaged with digital texts than before, this topic is especially timely and important.

Just as we want our bilingual students to grow and maintain proficiencies in both languages, Wolf posits that we must do the same by training students to effectively read both digital and print texts — two distinct brain functions that comprise biliteracy.

Though I’m concerned about the impacts of screen reading on kids, I confess that after reading Wolf’s article cited above, I was led to pursue it further due to some unease about my own changing reading habits. As a teacher and a librarian, I helped hundreds of kids learn to read, and hopefully to love books. And I still read a good deal every day — both in print and digital formats. But my digital reading now often outpaces what I read in print. And in a troubling way, my digital reading has changed the way I read hard copy text. Screen reading encourages skimming, and I’ve become pretty good at it. But I have to really catch myself and slow down when I read books and thoughtful long form articles, both in print and digital mediums.

I’m definitely not alone in this. If you’ve been skimming this article, that may be how you read most topical digital text. You don’t spend much time with it, but grab enough information to feel you’ve gotten what you came for.

Skimming has its place. And, per Wolf, it’s a literacy skill our children need to learn, especially for texts that lend themselves to such surface-level reading. Our students, without much instruction, are doing this already. But here’s the catch — most really struggle when it comes to going deeper into longer, more complicated and nuanced texts. They may have the necessary reading mechanics to do so, but not the perseverance, attention, and comprehension skills to make it through and understand what they’ve read. And screen reading is partly to blame.

To better appreciate what we need to do for young readers, as well as for older readers like me, I got a copy of Wolf’s 2018 book, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. And I recommend it to educators, parents, and readers alike. We’re at a seminal time in the history of literacy. Wolf compares it to when the Greeks developed a written language, and Socrates, among others, argued against it, claiming it would hinder memory, a vital skill for their culture’s oral traditions.

We’re already seeing the downsides of our own epic literacy transition and its effects on society. Like the ancient Greeks’ concern with the written word, we’ve gotten lazy with our own memories, knowing the answers to most questions can be provided by the digital device in our pocket. And research is showing a decline in students’ comprehension when reading the same material on a screen rather than print.

So, we need to be careful the pandemic doesn’t move us farther away from hard copy books — especially for our younger readers. Their still-developing plastic brains are well suited to biliteracy, and we’re only now beginning to understand the consequences of interrupting that crucial developmental opportunity.

But it’s also true for adult readers like me. Current worries and distractions are making it harder for us to go deep into books. Though there’s probably no time in recent history where we’ve needed that escape more than now.

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.