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Too Much Screen Time in Schools?

With the use of technology growing inside classrooms, educators must monitor and balance the amount of time students spend with digital devices.

Much has been written recently about the amount of time young people are spending in front of small screens. NPR (National Public Radio) reported on a 2017 study by Common Sense Media that focused on the growth of small screen use by children under the age of eight. And though the implications of this alarming growth aren’t fully known, a timely Psychology Today article provided parents with a test to evaluate whether their young children are becoming overstimulated by too much exposure to digital devices.

Another recently published report raised concerns about the growth of vision problems — specifically myopia, or nearsightedness — diagnosed in children who spend large amounts of time in front of screens.

And while a timely Business Insider article reminded us how Bill Gates and Steve Jobs limited the amount of screen time for their own children, The New York Times writes about a group of early Facebook and Google employees who are recognizing the societal impacts of what they helped create, and have banded together to form an organization to examine and address the tech-addiction issues their work has wrought.

So, as educators, we must ask ourselves if we are contributing to a growing problem, or are we instead modeling a reasonable way for our students and families to embrace technology, but without becoming overwhelmed by its negative side effects. Because even the casual observer knows that schools are making significant efforts to increase the amount of technology they put into the hands of their students. From one-to-one computing initiatives to digital textbooks, the growth of technology in schools — powered by a burgeoning ed tech marketplace — represent a substantial shift in K-12 education.

EducationNext focused on this screen time issue in a forum between two thoughtful writers. One, Daniel Scoggin, a co-founder of a classical charter school network, and the other, Tom Vander Ark, one of ed tech’s big thinkers, presented side-by-side articles on the question: Should We Limit “Screen Time” in Schools? Both are worthy reads that articulate the debate from two unique perspectives.

But putting aside all of the possibilities that ed tech holds for further transforming education — through advanced personalized learning, augmented and virtual reality, digital personal assistants and more — in my view, there will continue to be a handful of basic questions that educators must consider to ensure they’re properly balancing technology in their classrooms, and aren’t contributing to the “too much screen time” concerns:   

  • Is the time students spend in front of screens engaging and purposeful?
  • Are students joining together in focused face-to-face conversations, without the interruptions of digital devices, for a significant amount of time during each school day?
  • Do teachers play an instrumental role in reviewing, monitoring and guiding their students’ technology use?
  • In the classroom, is technology viewed as “just one of the tools” students can use to solve problems, answer questions and present information?
  • Does the school provide training to parents on the most effective ways to guide and monitor their children’s technology use?
  • Are students taught and encouraged to read deeply instead of simply skimming, to evaluate sources and consider viewpoints different than their own, and to become monitors of their own screen time and to know when and how to disengage from technology?  
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.