There have been a lot of stories in the news lately about the dangers of screen time. Everyone is talking about how kids today don’t know how to have a conversation with someone or to focus on something because they are too busy staring at their technology’s screen. Experts warn about the addictive danger of social media, and those who work in the technology industry are not allowing their own children to use the devices. So what are educators to think about the use of technology for learning?
Athena Chavarria, who worked as an executive assistant at Facebook and is now at Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic arm, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, said “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.” Tim Cook, the C.E.O. of Apple, said earlier this year that he would not let his nephew join social networks. Bill Gates banned cellphones until his children were teenagers, and Melinda Gates wrote that she wished they had waited even longer. Steve Jobs would not let his young children near iPads.
We can all agree that tech can be taken too far. Have you seen the potty training iPad station? And what about the USB Pet Rock?
And it’s definitely true that technology can become a mindless babysitter if used in the wrong way. Too much time spent staring passively at a screen is bad for anyone, young or old. There’s also the argument that being able to quickly find answers to simple questions with our devices is making us dumber and less patient. All of these points have some validity
But, to be fair, isn’t anything carried to the extreme bad for us? Coffee has been found to have some positive health benefits, but not if you drink 25 cups of it a day. Walking is good for you unless you walk 50 miles daily. Too much of anything is bad. That means that it’s up to us to monitor and, when necessary, limit how much time we spend staring at our devices.
The better question may be how much screen time is too much. “According to Common Sense Media, a nonprofit focused on children’s interactions with media and technology, kids under the age of eight average two hours and 19 minutes a day on some form of digital media, which is similar to TV habits going back decades for this age group” (source). So younger kids aren’t really spending any more time staring at their iPads or smartphones today than they did staring at the television in the past.
Technology connects us. It empowers each of us to find our own answers, to pursue our own dreams. It can help those of us who need a little more time or assistance to learn something to achieve that goal. It can remove the barriers of poverty, disability, and lack of opportunity. It can make the world a smaller, friendlier, and safer place. And it can inspire us as we use it to create, compose, innovate, communicate, and collaborate.
What we must understand is that technology is a tool just like any other tool. It has specific purposes and best practices for its use. Just as you would not use a hammer 24/7 to do all of your activities, so technology should not be used for everything. But what technology can help us to accomplish is something that no other tool can do. And that is where its true power lies and where we must use it most.
What We Should Do
First, we have to admit that the technology is not going away. We will not be going back to the “good ole days” when no one owned a cell phone. The latest study of market-research group Nielsen found that American adults spend more than 11 hours per day watching, reading, listening to, or simply interacting with media on devices (source).
Second, we have to acknowledge that too much of anything is bad for us and may be especially bad for the youngest of us. Parents should set limits as to when their children should have access to devices, as well as to what they may do on those devices. This is no different than parents limiting access to candy and sweets.
Third, educators must make sure that we are not using technology just for technology’s sake. As stated above, technology is AMAZING for empowering us to do higher-order thinking and creating. But it should most definitely not be used for passive consumption. That means that, when thinking about a lesson or activity, we actually spend time considering whether technology will add to the learning and, if so, what is the best way for that to happen. It is a conscious choice that should be balanced with all of the other pedagogical decisions that we make each day for the betterment of our students.
The devil does not live in our devices, but he may be able to convince us to use them inappropriately. It is up to each of us to ensure that time spent with technology adds richness to our lives and doesn’t take away from our sharing with each other, being in the world, or seeking to make each day a little better for everyone.
The Canadian Pediatric Society in June of 2019 has released new screen time rules which are of interest. They include no screen time at all for infants and toddlers under two and less than an hour a day for kids two to five. The guidelines for kids and teens, however, focus more on how and when screens are used rather than how long. “We really wanted to highlight that content, context and kids’ individual traits are as important as specific screen time limits,” says Michelle Ponti, chair of the CPS Digital Health Task Force and lead author on the statement. “It’s not the screens themselves that are inherently harmful,” says Ponti. “It’s how we use them. As long as they are not taking over our lives and complementing our lives, that’s OK. That’s what we’re trying to focus on.”
This blog was updated with additional content on June 9, 2019.