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Balancing Children’s Screen time in the Digital Age

Balancing Children’s Screen time in the Digital Age

One of the more paradoxical conundrums I read about on a daily basis is kids and screen time. Since the digital learning revolution has been fully embraced by schools that can afford it and skills weave themselves into lesson from teachers that can teach it, we have to ask ourselves “How much is too much?”

A common sight. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

I recently shared a story from CNN that pointed an alarming trend in the digital divide between rich and poor countries that has the potential to leave hundreds of millions of children behind in the foreseeable future with inadequate technical skills that are becoming prerequisites for the future job market. On the other side, we are also learning that more parents are opting for ‘screen less‘ experiences for their children, even sending them to device less summer camps to help ‘kick‘ their internet addiction. That is balanced with studies that show that internet socializing isn’t a bad thing as it allows children to continue strengthening their relationships through peer bonding. Research shows that some social media use is better than none at all, but overuse can lead to higher rates of depression as children see how amazing their friends lives are online and unfruitful their own must be. I’ve read countless articles from parents who have ‘stepped in’ to combat this in their own way by confiscating cell phones of their children (even in some cases of their children’s friends when they come to visit) which has been met with shock and awe from local communities, but sometimes even disastrous consequences as teenagers take their parents to court, commit murder, or take their own lives by suicide.

“Technology by itself does not equal innovation, but thoughtful, deliberate use can redefine new learning experiences.”  

Screen Time for Learning and Socializing: ‘The Grey Area’

As much as you might dismiss the dystopian case studies above as something out of ‘black mirror’, it’s unavoidable that our devices have become an extension of us. The first time someone suggested implantable devices into the human body, I scoffed, thinking it was ridiculous. Now, students walk around with phone in hand, ready to look at the latest tweet, snapchat or text sending them endorphins reminding them that they are loved by someone, anyone, and that they’re not alone. The ubiquitous ‘grey area’ of children and online learning is how quickly students multitask and pivot from teacher curated content where the experience is centered on the learner to social media content where the experience is centered on the creator. Not being able to distinguish the agenda and target of these two very different delivery systems is reshaping our political ideology and even our basic belief systems of what we thought was ‘true’ about vaccinations, our spherical earth and the historical record. Experts like Jaron Lanier, Cal Newport, Sherry Turkle, Simon Sinek and Nicholas Carr are advocating for limiting internet and social media use and helping you kick your own addiction. The choice to do so is of course our own.

Resources for the Classroom

One of the most common things I hear from administrators and other teachers observing me teach is not how much I use technology, but actually how little I seem to use it despite my reputation as a digital learning coach. The best lessons are ones with a great ‘hook’, engaging questions and ample opportunity for everyone to speak, listen, read and write. Technology by itself does not equal innovation, but thoughtful, deliberate use can redefine new learning experiences. Here are some of my favorite resources that have helped me and my learners over the years:

  • Chrome Extensions: For the chrome browser, you can install tools that will give you a snapshot of how much time you waste on distracting sites. Some extensions like ‘stay focused’ you can configure a time limit that will shut you off from time-sucking sites.
  • Common Sense Media: This great site has all sorts of lessons for understanding different forms of media but also great articles. I’ve been using CSM’s lessons for cyberbullying push-in lessons lately.
  • Applied Digital Skills: Google’s portal for applied learning takes projects and breaks them down by grade level. Students can join classes set up by their teacher (similar to Google Classroom) and work through tutorials that are student based with metrics that give teachers a view of class progress.
  • The Kids Should See This: This site has amazing videos for lessons or discussion starters during check ins.

Educating Parents

One member of my PLN, developed a brilliant ‘March Madness’ style graphic to help parents thoughtfully and playfully use the internet in new ways with one new task per day in the month of March. Some of the parents at the school where she works were dismissive of the benefits of using digital tools in the classroom and her intervention reduced the stigma that many parents brought to the table by instead of her preaching on how to best model this herself, the onus was on the children to do these challenges with their parents ‘together’ highlighting that this is a relationship first and foremost best done together with generations of digital natives and immigrants alike. It reminded me of a session that I’m delivering to grade 5 parents next month on how to bridge the digital divide (see below) as students transition into middle school. Other considerations are whether to put parental controls on browsing, blacklist certain words or IP addresses, and the conversations to have as a family that support classroom instruction.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ model to solving this problem- each school, country, and population of students and parents are different. As learning coaches, we can model thoughtful use, and highlight how when well leveraged, digital tools can enhance learning outcomes in amazing ways.


Gary is a former technology integrationist at Korea International School that has mentored teachers in digital technology in the Asia pacific area for 17 years. His family is taking a trip around the world in for the 2019-2020 school year focusing on travel and education. You can follow their family’s blog at ‘Nomadic Edventures

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