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Screen Time Isn’t The Right Issue

Getting Online

Too much screen time is harmful for children.

Many teachers, parents, and others who work with kids have accepted this as the gospel truth. But where is the evidence of this “truth”?

Two UK researchers who have done a deep dive into the subject say it doesn’t exist.

If you had attended the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ international congress in London last week you could have been forgiven for coming away with the following thoughts. Addiction to Fortnite, the online game, is a real disorder; social media is depleting “our neurotransmitter deposits”; and “excess screen time has reduced our attention span to eight seconds, one less than that of a goldfish”.

Scary stuff! Only problem is, none of these claims is supported by facts or a drop of scientific evidence.

Some of those “reports” from the congress will wind up in news headlines and two-minute video segments, presented by commentators who “don’t know – or don’t care – that they are cherry-picking from an evidence base riddled with errors”. It sounds logical – and not a little scary – that screens are causing our kids to under-perform goldfish.

The research from the writers “focused on a sample of more than 10,000 preteens and teens, analysing1 nearly a decade of longitudinal data collected from British adolescents”.

And what did they find?

Well, mostly nothing! In more than half of the thousands of statistical models we tested, we found nothing more than random statistical noise. In the remainder, we did find some small trends over time – these were mostly clustered in data provided by teenage girls. Decreases in satisfaction with school, family, appearance and friends presaged increased social media use, andincreases in social media use preceded decreases in satisfaction with school, family, and friends. You can see then how, if you were determined to extract a story, you could cook up one about teenage girls and unhappiness.

But instead of seeing these results as disappointing – as they might be in a journalistic story sense – in science the lack of an expected finding is inherently valuable, making us reconsider, challenge and update our notion of how social media is affecting us.

By referring you to this article (and, in a post from last April, to a book whose author also makes the point that screen time is a poor indicator or child wellbeing) I’m not advocating for unlimited device use for anyone, much less kids.

As the authors note, there are “many good reasons to be sceptical1 of the role of Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok in our society”. But the more important factor when it comes to the wellbeing of children is the quality of the time they spend with these and other online activities. And that’s where parents and teachers come in.

Don’t just count the number of minutes kids interacting with a screen. Look at what they are actually doing with those devices.

At the same time, you may want to reflect on whether the stuff you’re doing on that smartphone is a good use of your time.


The picture, one of my favorites, is from our trip to Cuba in 2016. Even in a country that severely restricts internet access, kids and adults still spend a lot of time on their screens.

1. Those are not typos, only British spellings of the word. You know, the original English language. :-)

Are Screens Really “Bad” For Kids?

Kids are spending too much time with digital screens.

At least they are according to some high profile studies, scary media stories about a tech backlash among “technologists” themselves, and many, many surveys of parents and teachers.

But what if they’re wrong?

In an interesting new book, “The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World”, Jordan Shapiro, a professor of philosophy and senior fellow for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, argues that kids interacting with screens is just all part of growing up in a new age.

Shapiro draws on his understanding of history and centuries of philosophical thought to say that kids who spend hours engaged with devices are simply learning about and adapting to the world around them. It seems different from parents came of age but really is not.

Grown-ups are disoriented because, at first glance, today’s screen media seem personal and private. When kids are watching YouTube videos or playing video games, it feels like the devices are pulling them away from the family and into a cocoon. But also, in a paradoxical twist, the screens function like portals that transport kids out of the house, beyond the perfect picket fence, and into a vast public dystopian virtual reality. Hence, parents are confused. They don’t know whether their kids are too detached or too exposed. All they know for sure is that traditional home life feels out of order; things aren’t neat and organized.

This anxiety is understandable. But remember that new technologies will always beget new routines. Your job as a parent is not to stop unfamiliar tools from disrupting your nostalgic image of the ideal childhood, nor to preserve the impeccable tidiness of the Victorian era’s home/work split. Instead, it’s to prepare your kids to live an ethical, meaningful, and fulfilled life in an ever – changing world.

Shapiro is not saying that parents (and teachers) should just hand devices to the kids and walk away. Instead he offers some historical context of family life when dealing with other technologies and makes the case that parents can still guide their children without heavy-handed restrictions.

He simply wants parents to take a closer look at what is going on when kids are interacting with those screens and guide them in their use of devices, video games, social media, and the rest of the digital world. “Just say no” doesn’t work here either.

This is just a small part of what Shapiro discusses in the book, and you may very well disagree with some of his conclusions. However, his thoughts on the matter are something every adult who interacts with children should read and consider.

By All Means, Question The Screens

As promised, Jay Mathews is back with a followup to his promotion for a new anti-edtech book, written by two high school social studies teachers here in Fairfax County. If possible, his installment this week features even more cliches and overly broad generalizations.

Mathews begins by citing the long discredited myth of the “digital native”, and follows that by completely misrepresenting (and likely misunderstanding) the work of danah boyd. All in one paragraph.

The rest of the column is a messy collection of anecdotes and unsupported claims from the book.

Citing much research, they concluded, “the new digital world is a toxic environment for the developing minds of young people. Rather than making digital natives superlearners, it has stunted their mental growth.”

I would love to see the academic studies they found using phrases like “toxic environment” and “superlearners”.

But what about the broad range of research that arrives at very different conclusions? While the negative side too often gets the headlines, studies of how technology impacts learning is hardly conclusive. And this blanket statement alone makes me think the authors are not going for any kind of balance in this book.

Then there’s this reasoning:

Social studies teachers, they reported, are being encouraged to move “to DBQs, or document-based questions, which are simply research papers where the teacher has done all the research for the students.” Clement and Miles stick with real research papers, after students learn about different types of evidence and plan investigative strategies. Yet their students often become frustrated when devices don’t lead them to a useful source right away.

Completely ignore the issue of whether writing “real” research papers is even a valid assignment anymore.

Back before the evil internet, very few teachers just dumped their kids in the library and ignored their frustration with finding appropriate material. The process of searching for, validating, and using evidence was a key part of the learning. It still is. If anything, these skills are even more important for students now. And banning the use of “screens” for research borders on educational malpractice.

The only idea by Mathews and the authors in this mess that makes any sense is that parents (and students and teachers) should ask questions about the use of technology in schools. But “May I opt my child out of screen-based instructional activities?” is not one of them.

Instead, go deeper and challenge educators to respond to queries like “How can the use of technology change and improve the learning experience for my child?” or “How will your instructional practice change to help my child make best use of the technology available?”.

Bottom line, I certainly support questioning the use of “screens” in the classroom. However, recommending, as the authors (and probably Mathews) do, that “teachers reject most of ed-tech” is completely unrealistic and extremely short-sighted.

It’s a matter of how, not whether.

Blame the Screens, Not Us

In his regular weekly column for the Washington Post1, Jay Mathews wants us to know about two local teachers who have written a book containing “discoveries that threaten the foundations of the high-tech classroom”.

Wow! But a statement like that is what you might expect from something with the title “Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse Is Making Our Kids Dumber.”

I haven’t read more than the excerpts provided by Mathews and the Amazon sampler for the book, but I have a few observations anyway.

Let’s start with the authors’ “three core principles for good teaching”:

(1) deliver instruction in the simplest possible manner; (2) focus instruction on what students are able to do; and (3) foster face-to-face human interaction and opportunities for community building.

That opening phrase “deliver instruction” is certainly at the core of the common view of classroom pedagogy. Someone designated as “teacher” delivers a package of carefully curated information to a group known as “students”. Unstated but assumed, of course, is that students will display the amount of information they have retained at some point.

In the third principle, the idea of “community building” is wonderful. That should be one of the primary goals of classrooms and schools. However, real communities are built by the members, not framed by someone else. Leaders come from within the community, not assigned to that role.

Then there are the opening lines to the first chapter of the book itself.

Something is not right with today’s kids. You know it, and I know it.

That is followed with the far too common indictment of “screen time” and the “misuse” of social media and technology in general, complete with the fictitious example of “typical” teenager Brett as he gets up and goes to school. Just that part of the book includes an incredible number of cliches disparaging both students and their teachers. I’m completely torn as to whether I want to read more.

However, in the course of the article, the authors’ and Mathews do land on a few truths.

They are certainly correct that “these tools in and of themselves do not make for better teaching”. And I do agree with this observation:

Students need no help from schools developing their tablet, smartphone, or Twitter skills. They are doing this on their own.

But not the conclusion that follows.

What they need help with is critical thinking, problem solving, and community building.

Most kids do very well with developing those skills. Just not for the material you are trying to get them to understand.

So, did you consider that maybe the problem isn’t with your students and their use of technology but instead with this structure we’ve designed for them call “school”?

Is it possible the curriculum we expect them to learn is a major part of the problem? Large parts of that material is irrelevant and does little to foster those problem solving and community building skills mentioned several times. Not to mention they way it is “delivered”.

Plus the kids are very well aware of why the teachers want them to absorb the information in the first place: it’s on the SOLs (Virginia’s standards of learning), it will probably show up on a test sometime in the future, and they must pass the test to “succeed” (and keep the schools/district numbers high).

In the end, I do not disagree with these teacher that there is something wrong with how we use technology in school.

The problem, however, is that, for the most part, we are trying to replicate the standard school experience through screens. We want to maintain the same curriculum, pedagogy, and academic framework with some computing devices slapped on the side.

Instead of taking full advantage of the available power from devices and networks to reimagine the entire learning experience.

By the way, Mathews closes the column with this:

Next week, I will get into what they say can be done to turn back the acidic distractions of the tech revolution in our schools, and save just the stuff that works.

You have been warned.


1. The title in the paper, “Teachers demonstrate the power of fewer screens and more human interaction” is completely wrong; the online title “Hitting the return key on education” makes no sense.

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