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For America’s Children, Screen Time is Here to Stay

Experts and educators say it’s time to reframe the conversation around tech addiction

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Since returning to school last year, Utah teacher John Arthur has seen more and more kids show up to his classroom exhausted and angry after working through drama on Snapchat until 3 a.m.

But as much as Arthur is concerned about the heightened amount of time students spend in the digital world since the start of the pandemic, he knows screen time is here to stay.

“It’s an unusual problem because we can’t take it away from them,” said Arthur, who teaches sixth grade at Meadowlark Elementary School in Salt Lake City. “The world just doesn’t work like that anymore. They have to use technology.”

Arthur isn’t the only one who sees it this way. Researchers, parents and teachers are finding that even as youth screen time has shot up as a result of the pandemic, it’s time to reframe how we think about it.

Teachers like Arthur are finding ways to deliberately and innovatively embrace technology in their lessons, knowing students will find it more engaging.

Arthur said that he utilizes simulations on Minecraft, a popular video game for youth, as a way for students to learn about ancient civilizations. But he also emphasizes balance and makes sure all math instruction is on paper. That way, children can have a tactile learning experience, as well as a break from screens, he said.

Managing screen time should be guided by whether technology is displacing time that should be spent in other areas, such as exercising, play dates with friends or sleeping, said Dr. Dave Anderson, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute in New York City.

“Making technology into some sort of boogeyman” should be left in 2018, Anderson said. The focus now should be on helping children and adolescents healthily engage with technology.

“This idea that it’s hard for kids to get off screens, it’s true of the entire human population,” he said. “What we try to do is put in the same behavioral safeguards with children as we do with adults.”

He suggested rewarding children who are able to get off of screens quickly, and putting time limits on technology that include warnings when time is almost up.

Prior to the pandemic, children were more comfortable in traditional classroom settings with pencils and paper, teacher Arthur said, adding that now, there’s a noticeable ease that falls on the room when children are able to use devices in lessons.

There’s a “chill familiarity,” he said, where they sit back, loosen up, and have an easier time talking to each other. Not only do they comfortably utilize chat functions, he said, but they also seem more free to make in-person conversations because holding the device puts them at ease.

“When they had to leave school, school became a more foreign place and even in some ways a scary place because it was synonymous with sickness and risk, so they understand ‘I’m not 100% safe in this place, but I’m super comfortable on this device because I’ve been using it nonstop,’” Arthur said. “It’s familiar. It’s the one thing that transcended through the pandemic. It brought the whole world to them when they were stuck at home.”

With children exhibiting so much more comfort in digital spaces, and skyrocketing screen time (one study found kids and adolescents doubled their recreational screen time during the pandemic), experts have also been raising the alarm on how this might impact child development, especially when it comes to in-person socialization skills, such as facial expression control, polite conversation and active listening.

But there’s another side, said Anderson.

“To act as if kids are not developing social skills online is fallacy because what we all know is that email voice, text voice, the ability to interact effectively over Zoom or chat are integral to the modern workplace,” Anderson said. “You need both.”

Anderson said some behavioral issues, such as shorter attention spans, are not an irreversible side effect of too much screen time—the screen itself has not inherently decreased attention spans.

“It’s because the screen itself is so interesting and vibrant in the stimuli that it’s presenting. It can be difficult for kids who are spending a lot of time on screens to then have the practice of being in the real world, paying attention to stimuli that are much less fast paced,” Anderson said.

Arthur knows the problem of demonizing screens, instead of working with them, all too well.

When classes were online, he had a student who didn’t log on for two days. When he called the student’s parents to check in, he discovered the student had his laptop taken away as a punishment.

Taking the laptop away may have solved one problem, but it created another, forcing the student to miss out on essential learning.

“They said ‘we don’t know how to keep him on just the school stuff because he keeps going on the other stuff, so our only answer is to take the whole thing away,” Arthur said. “And that’s our dilemma. We have to understand the technology enough as adults to figure out how to let in the good and keep out the bad.”

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