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By Duncan McDonald (he/him), electronics/technology teacher, Vancouver

There are negative aspects of screen time, and yet, screens are a symbol of modern-day, cutting-edge social connection. Smart phones, tablets, and personal computers have become part of our daily life, seemingly overnight. The availability of these devices, and the amount we and our children use them, has no parallel in human history. The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends that school-aged children 5 years and older should have less than 2 hours of screen time a day (they recommend no screen time for children under 2, and 1 hour or less for children under 5).1 Compare this to a 2019 survey that found, on average, children aged 8–12 spend 4 hours and 44 minutes on screens for entertainment purposes, while those aged 13–18 spend 7 hours and 22 minutes.2

Why do medical professionals recommend limits on screen time? Data is uncovering that the type of screen time, the amount of exposure to screen time, and the age of the child matter. The news is not good for what screen time can do to the developing brain and the secondary consequences. There are four key things we need to do as educators when it comes to preparing students for healthy screen-time habits:

  • Stay informed by educating ourselves as data on screen time is published.
  • Recognize the amount and type of screen time we expose students to in school.
  • Place critical value on screen-free time in our classrooms.
  • Educate students and parents about healthy screen-time usage.

No teacher wants to be seen as a 21st century Luddite. School districts often encourage smart screens and laptop carts for learning. Screen time is often used as a reward in classrooms for good behaviour. It allows for the reduction of boredom, highly engaging content for students all the time, and can be an incredibly helpful support for us as teachers. So, what is the harm?

There is a growing body of scientific research that is directly linking some types of screen time with poor physical and mental health outcomes. However, a key question with screen-time research right now is the distinction between correlation and causation. Is screen time merely reducing activities that would otherwise promote healthy behaviours and outcomes? Or is the act of having screen time alone altering brain physiology? These are evolving discussions, however, it is clear that there is an effect on the brain and how you use screen time matters.

Now, if you are still awake reading this, let’s talk about sleep. Good sleep is linked to many good health outcomes, and bad sleep is linked to many negative health outcomes. We sleep every day since the time we are fetuses, yet data suggests that most of us are sleep deprived. People of all ages need healthy sleep, and people of all ages have poor sleep. Sleep quantity, quality, and daytime sleepiness are shown to be far worse for school-aged children with access to portable electronic devices in the bedroom.3 The same study found that 96% of teenagers aged 15–17 took electronic devices to bed with them and averaged 9 hours of screen time a day. A simple pole in my classroom suggests similar findings.

What about links between depression and social media? There are multiple studies that show a correlation between social media use and stress, depression, and anxiety. Some studies demonstrate a dramatic difference between high social media users and low social media users and their correlated negative effects.4 There are also exceptions.5 Where high social media users get large amounts of face-to-face contact, much of the negative associations are absent. Is it a matter of social media causing stress, depression, and anxiety? Or is it that spending hours on social media is reducing the time spent having real face-to-face contact? In time, the data will likely become more clear.

What we can understand is that screen time is having an effect on children. When children are connecting with technology there are short-term benefits and long-term costs. If a teacher uses videos to capture the children’s attention, are the children building skills to attend and focus without a screen? If a student is engaging with flashing screens to learn math, does a book seem boring? If a student is scrolling through an app, are they engaging in social-emotional awareness or mindfulness? Or are they avoiding certain feelings and lack awareness of their surroundings? If a student eats their lunch while looking at a screen, my suspicion is they aren’t building important face-to-face social skills. Emotional regulation, boredom, mindfulness, physical activity, and social connection are all recurring themes for long-term health and happiness. So, do we forego these for short-term benefits?

This is not an all or nothing situation; much in the same way you can be healthy while your diet also includes candy and chips. A healthy dose of screen time in a modern society is also healthy. There can be plenty of beneficial outcomes that result from a healthy use of screen time. Not all screen time is the same. There are some computer applications that teach mindfulness exercises. There are a host of devices, like Fitbit, that can promote physical activity.

As educators we need to educate ourselves as new data is published to teach ourselves, students, and parents about healthy screen time. I believe there should be a greater value put on learning during screen-free time, because this can support healthy brain development and skill building. We should recognize the type and frequency of screen time we are showing our students. Lastly, if studies demonstrate that poor mental, cognitive, or physical health outcomes are associated with certain uses of screens, we should advocate that teachers reduce such usage in the classroom and students not use screens for these purposes on school grounds. Schools model other healthy behaviours, such as limiting the sale of sugary drinks and snacks, why not do the same for unhealthy screen-time habits?

Recommended reading

The Tech Solution by Dr. Shimi Kang provides parents and educators the tech habits children need to achieve their full potential.

Links to resources from Fraser Health, the Canadian Paediatric Society, and the World Health Organization are also available at linktr.ee/ScreenTimeHealth.

1 www.fraserhealth.ca/health-topics-a-to-z/children-and-youth/physical-activity-for-children/screen-time-for-children#.YkoBWC0ZNBw
2 www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-And-Watching-TV-054.aspx
3 www.pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27802500/
4 www.nature.com/articles/s41467-022-29296-3?fbclid=IwAR3WpV6IvIvZkpbFMM8mdXHltKEs3EHaYY60hj1qn4Om1715xGr-up2yjLc

5 www.childmind.org/article/is-social-media-use-causing-depression/

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