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The Screen Time Fallacy

Introduction:

“Everything in moderation, including moderation.” “Observe due measure; moderation is best in all things.”

From the ancient Greeks to Oscar Wilde, this proverbial principle is timeless and endlessly applicable. However, in the case of screen time moderation, how we measure our engagement with screen technology may be more important than moderating our time.

In 2018, the Pew Research Center gathered technology experts, scholars and health specialists to consider how the rapid changes in digital life will impact peoples’ well-being. The largest percentage of respondents believe that our future digital life will be more helpful than harmful. Most believed changes in technology will improve the well-being and opportunity for people, but not without caution. Many experts also cited health, social, and security concerns (Anderson & Rainie, 2018). Like any medication, there’s always potential side effects. Screen time moderation could be considered the medicine in this metaphor, but the side effects of this issue have been overstated, as many experts are now shifting the narrative away from this oversimplified practice to a much more nuanced understanding.

In examining our current digital lives as it stands today, the current pandemic has intensified the debate around screen time particularly as it relates to education. Schools in remote or hybrid learning environments place a tremendous amount of stress on staff and student screen time. On average, teens spend 9 hours of screen time a day (Rideout, 2015). In Seattle, where I live and work, some families have been critical of the school district’s official schedule for remote learning and the amount of screen time it burdens students with. Some families devoutly subscribed to the screen time ‘shot clock’, limiting their student’s exposure to screens and encouraging “in-person interaction, time outdoors, and tactile activities” (Resmovits, 2020). These are necessary activities characteristic of a healthy lifestyle, but the early research and assumptions around screen time limits is outdated. A much more nuanced understanding of screen time has emerged, and as a result, a broader conversation around healthy digital habits and equity. 

Families who are more affluent and privileged typically have multiple devices at home with an ease of online access and greater access to resources and opportunity to create more in-person enrichment for their student. Students furthest from educational justice are less likely to have ease of online access and additional devices. If a student only has access to a mobile device at home, “they are less likely to go online to pursue an interest or engage in a creative endeavor” (Holland, 2019). Technology can provide multiple representations of content, accessibility, and opportunity for student-driven learning. When taken away, students of color can especially feel alienated and discouraged from learning because, for some, technology is viewed as an essential resource of utmost value (Resmovits, 2020). Thus, arguments for less screen time in school creates greater inequity. Health experts like the American Academy of Pediatrics (APA) have refocused their message around screen time. According to the APA, reasonable screen time limits should be considered, but it is much more important for families to develop healthy habits “such as sleep schedules and holding difficult conversations without interruption of scrolling through social media” (Resmovits, 2020).

This is where the understanding of screen time is shifting: healthy digital habits that focus on the quality of the experience and not necessarily the time. This lends itself to the question of where institutions and their educators fit in all of this. Students will access technology through a variety of mediums and for a variety of purposes. Technology use occurs both at school, at home, and every place in-between. We also know that access to technology is not equal, and how/when students experience technology is impacted by socioeconomics.  

My Question:

  • How can schools teach and support healthy digital habits that engages all stakeholders (educators, parents, students) especially as it concerns screen time? 

ISTE Standard for Coaches: 

  • 7b: Partner with educators, leaders, students and families to foster a culture of respectful online interactions and a healthy balance in their use of technology.

Solution:

Educational institutions need to support the shift in thinking away from screen time ‘shot clocks’ to empowering students, families, and educators in thinking dispositionally about the different ways of being, interacting, creating, and learning through screen-based technologies. 

Design considerations:

Technology use is interdisciplinary, and therefore the teaching of healthy digital habits should connect to every class and subject matter. Administrators can lean on committees and building leadership teams to plan curriculum and embed digital habits into their school’s mission and/or guiding foundational beliefs. Cultivate opportunities for students to learn and reflect upon the consequences of healthy and unhealthy digital lives. 

It is critical to consider context when engaging with screens. Not all screen time is created equal and varies by how it is used, the content that is engaged, and its fostering of relationships. Like a fitness journal, a digital habits journal could provide students a space to reflect upon how they are engaging with technology, connect it with their learning, and the effect that it is having on their health and wellness. This could also prove to be a valuable tool for discussions in 504/IEP meetings, parent-teacher conferences, and in building a culture of positive digital habits. There should be careful considerations for how students can share in their learning of healthy digital habits while protecting their choice and privacy for what they share. 

In addition, it is critical for staff to model and share in their own learning and struggles with how they engage in technology. This can also be powerful in building rapport and classroom community. Staff should also consider how they are asking students to engage with technology for school. I admit that this can be very challenging as each student engages with technology differently and has different digital habits. Predicting/planning for time may not be possible or worth it. Instead, educators need to consider if their lesson/assignment provides opportunity for students to engage with technology in ways that centers their interests and supports 21st century skills. As best as possible, limit rote and passive consumption of technology without personal purpose. There’s certainly still a place for designing learning opportunities that don’t require a screen, and there should be intention around cultivating that, but it may be better worth the effort to consider the context for how your students are engaging online for academics. 

Engage families:

It is imperative to invite families into this learning, but the purpose should not focus on telling parents what’s right from wrong. Any parent will tell you that telling someone how to parent their own kids isn’t going to be received too well. Instead, educators should manufacture opportunities that engage families into participating alongside their student(s) as they learn and reflect upon their digital habits and screen use. Encourage families to participate alongside with students as they reflect upon the how, where, and why they are using screen media. The goal here is spark conversation around screen technology use and how it is impacting personal and social health. Again, the point isn’t for educators to tell parents what is quality use, but to encourage them to move past the screen time fallacy and engage with their student(s) to think critically about their engagement with screen media to foster healthy digital habits (Blum-Ross & Livingstone, 2017). 

References

Anderson, J., & Rainie, L. (2018). The Future of Well-Being in a Tech-Saturated World. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2018/04/17/the-future-of-well-being-in-a-tech-saturated-world/.  

Blum-Ross, A., & Livingstone, S. (2017). Screen Time for Kids: Getting the Balance Right. https://clalliance.org/blog/screen-time-kids-getting-balance-right/.  

Holland, B. (2019). Changing the Discussion: From Screen Time to Digital Equity. https://www.gettingsmart.com/2019/11/changing-the-discussion-from-screen-time-to-digital-equity/. 

Resmovits, J. (2020). Seattle-area parents want rules about screen time, but experts say off-screen interactions matter more. https://www.seattletimes.com/education-lab/parents-want-rules-about-screen-time-pediatricians-say-off-screen-interactions-matter-more/.  

Rideout, V. (2015). The Common Sense census: Media use by tweens and teens. Retrieved from Common Sense Media website: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/uploads/research/census_researchre port.pdf