Strange though it may seem, the Gateses limited their children to 45 minutes of screen time per day. I had set the same limit with my children. That seemed like enough time on screen for them to have that kind of fun, but also to experience the actual world. Then they got older, and something strange happened: school.
Don’t get me wrong. I think school is wonderful. I think it’s so wonderful, in fact, that I have devoted half of my life to it. I’ve been a public high school teacher for the past 24 years. I have seen changes big and small. Today’s push to get more kids using more screens for more of the school day has been the single most transformative change I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen the effects of this as a teacher and a parent. What I’ve seen in school would shock anyone who does not work with kids every day. Kids today are less able to think critically, solve problems, focus, and interact socially than ever before. Our obsession with screen time bears much of the blame. More on this in a minute.
First, though, what does this have to do with the limits that Bill Gates and I have tried to set with our kids? Perhaps this sounds familiar: you have set a screen time limit in your home. Since you’re a good parent, you follow through on your limits and tell your kids when their screen time is over for the day. “But mom,” comes the reply, “I have to do my homework.”
Feeling like the dinosaur you are, you stand there perplexed. To you, homework meant reading an actual textbook and writing on paper. It might have meant getting together with a group of friends at someone’s house to work on a presentation or have a study session. Your kids, though, if they attend typical American schools, have online textbooks, so their reading is done on screen as well. Homework needs to be turned into a digital drop box. “Collaborating” is done on some form of Google doc or another. In other words, the school has come into your home and run roughshod over your family screen time limit.
You now have a choice: you can sit with your children to make certain no time is wasted and they are always on task; or you can continue on with your evening and the mountain of things you have to get done. If you’re like me, you end up doing the latter. If your kids are like mine, homework now takes three or four hours, usually broken down like this: 30 minutes of homework and 2.5 to 3.5 hours of goofing around online.
What could be the harm in this, though? Schools want the best for my kids, right? Of course they do. In 24 years I’ve never known a school decision maker to intentionally do something that was bad for kids. However, follow this train of logic: A) school decision makers want good things for kids. B) School decision makers are implementing programs that require kids to spend more time on screens. C) Ipso facto, school decision makers must think that more screen time is good for kids. If A or B is false then C cannot be true. However, I am confident that A is true. We know that B is true. So what are we left with? The fact that school personnel think they’re doing your kids a favor by requiring more screen time. Here’s where I, and a growing chorus of teachers, parents and scientists part ways with many folks in charge of education today. But don’t take my word for it. Consider what a growing mountain of peer-reviewed, scientific research says.
Researchers at Cambridge report that increasing screen time leads to a reduction in academic achievement. A research team at the University of Michigan found similar results. Economic researchers at UC Santa Cruz found that access to computers at home and in school leads to worse academic and behavioral outcomes. Public policy researchers at Duke University found essentially the same thing. Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, an addiction specialist and author has called screens in school a “$60 billion hoax” since kids end up worse off when screen time is increased. A variety of other researchers at other institutions have found that increasing time with screen-based digital technologies leads to decreased classroom engagement, decreased math achievement, an increase in victimization by classmates, a decrease in physical activity and an increase in the consumption of soft drinks and junk food. Studies done by the NIH have linked elevated screen time usage to many disorders, such as decreased human empathy, increased anxiety and an increase in sleep problems.
These are just the tip of the iceberg. The point here is that research done by scientists across institutions and disciplines is pointing to the same thing: more screen time is bad for kids. Yet schools are pushing it now more than ever – to the point that whatever limit you may have set for your kids in your home no longer matters. That’s simply not right.