Screen time in school: Good, bad, or to be determined?

Photo courtesy of Kevin Jarrett, Creative Commons

Photo courtesy of Kevin Jarrett, Creative Commons

by Patricia Hilliard

A large part of my job is working with school districts to build their capacity to support personalized and digital learning for all students. In discussing this transition with a parent group, one concerned mother brought up an intriguing question, “If the entire school is ‘going digital’, how much screen time is my child going to get every day? My pediatrician only recommends two hours a day.”

After clearing up a few misconceptions about effective teaching and learning with digital tools, the parents were excited about the school’s new digital learning direction. Nevertheless, her question made me think...How much is too much screen time? I decided to do a little digging and here is what I found.

My initial search on Google produced pretty dismal results. Increased screen time for children has been associated with obesity, lower test scores, behavioral issues, and lack of sleep. Even worse, one recent study found that teens who spent high to moderate amounts of time on screens were more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety or depression.

The largest research to date on children and screen time is currently underway. For this study, the National Institute of Health (NIH) recruited approximately 11,000 children, ages 9 - 10, to determine how screen time impacts their mental health and brain development. Although this is a 10-year longitudinal study, the NIH has already released preliminary results. Children who spent more than seven hours a day on digital devices were experiencing premature thinning of the outer layer of their brains, i.e., the cortex. This layer of the brain is responsible for vital functions, such as information processing, reasoning, and understanding language.

I guess I could have just stopped there since the NIH is a reputable organization, after all. If they have found that increased screen time negatively impacts children, maybe I need to communicate to teachers and principals that students shouldn’t spend more than two hours of the entire school day on a device. Nevertheless, I have experienced the power of instructional methods, such as personalized learning, project-based learning, and differentiation, all of which required students to spend a significant amount of class time on screens.

Not quite satisfied with my previous searches, I dug a little deeper and read a little more for a few hours (yes, I see the irony in spending more screen time on learning about screen time). I found that the large national studies mostly focus on screen time in relation to non-educational purposes. One study specifically asked participants, “On an average weekday, about how much time does [child’s name] spend with computers, cell phones, handheld video games, and other electronic devices, doing things other than schoolwork?”

The landmark NIH study mentioned earlier studies about screen time that placed participants in a Magnetic Resonance Image (MRI) machine. Their brain activity was monitored as they watched movies or played video games. Additionally, both the participants and their parents completed questionnaires about culture, environment, neurocognition, mental health, physical activity, and substance use. Only a small portion of this study measured factors related to academics, such as memory, vocabulary, rate of learning, and oral reading skills. In fact, the original goal of the study was to learn more about adolescent substance use. The focus on screen time was added as the study evolved over time.

With no direct evidence on how screen time for academic purposes impacts behavior and brain development, where do we go from here? How do we prepare students for a digital world without unintentionally negatively impacting their social, emotional, and academic well-being?

As educators we should be proactive in taking measures to reduce any potential harm associated with screen time. While it may be impractical or even counterproductive to reduce screen time in certain schools to two hours throughout the school day, we may want to remind ourselves of the following when planning for students to use digital devices:

  1. Balance screen time with learning tasks that require movement. Even movement for a few seconds, e.g., from station to station, has been shown to benefit brain function and academic achievement. In addition, movement in the classroom has been associated with increased retention, student engagement and positive peer interactions.

  2. Provide opportunities for students to share, question, and extend what they are learning on screens through face-to-face discussions. The purpose of the guided discussions are two-fold. First, it will allow them to practice having productive academic conversations. Secondly, it allows students to learn from their peers. Peer learning when implemented correctly has been shown to be an effective learning strategy.

  3. Consider how much screen time students receive throughout the entire school day. This could be done in a quick student survey or simply by asking fellow teachers how much time students spend on screens in their classes.

Though the impact of screen time when used for educational purposes is not quite clear, it is imperative that we begin to adjust instructional time to maximize learning and minimize any potential side effects on youth development.

About the Author

Dr. Patricia Hilliard serves as a Research Associate and Digital Innovation Coach at the Friday Institute for Education Innovation where she works with school districts to design, deliver, and implement professional learning to meet the needs of all students through a personalized, blended, and/or digital learning environment.