EdTech and screen time are awkward friends

By Kerry Gallagher

This post originally appeared on CUE Blog.

Young students with tabletsI work in a 1-to-1 school. Every student and teacher has a device used for accessing resources, carrying out learning activities, and communicating and collaborating for academic purposes. My title is Digital Learning Specialist, so I love the tech. But I’m also a mom, so I understand worries about distraction and detachment. When our entire school community was surveyed last spring, the top concern of parents, teachers, and students related to technology use was screen time. Many of these concerns are based on warnings from experts we trust.

The research those warnings are based on came out over a decade ago.

How to interpret the research

Way back in 2001, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended limiting screen time to under 2 hours per day. A decade later, in 2011 researchers in Australia noted that these limits were virtually impossible as screens became more than place for consumption of media. In May of this year, the AAP replaced these time-based restrictions with 12 guidelines. As noted by Jocelyn Brewer, psychologist and creator of Digital Nutrition, “These guidelines take a leap towards recognizing the virtual reality of many families, where there is an increasing emphasis on learning with technology, yet there’s scarce direct teaching of the soft skills required to avoid the curses of excessive and compulsive use.” The 12 guidelines include clear recognition that parenting needs to happen in all environments, including online environments, and that it is normal for teens to do part of their growing and exploring online.

This adjustment to AAP recommendations does not put the screen time debate to bed.There is even more recent concern with the release of the Common Sense Media Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens. The most often repeated statistic from the study is that teens are spending an average of 9 hours per day with media and technology. Denise Lisi DeRosa,tech parenting consultant and Huffington Post blogger, cautions against reacting to this information by locking down teens’ access to technology. She says,

“The total screen time amount is not the full story because not all screen time is equal. We need to understand what our kids are doing online and why. Are they connecting or disengaging? Learning or escaping? Creating or being passive consumers? All of this is okay within reason, as long as there is balance in their lives. There’s a lot of junk online, but there are also great opportunities for learning, exploring, connecting and creative expression.”

That learning and exploring will happen at home and at school. Parents and educators need to work together to help teens learn a healthy balance.

Educators and parents are partners

When we get down to our roots, parents and educators want the same things for children. David Ryan Polgar, co-founder of the DigCitSummit and Digital Family Expert at Ask.fm, sums it up nicely. “We could make more progress regarding screen time if we focus on the end results that we are looking for with children. We want our kids to be tech savvy, but also able to allow their brains to wander and wonder. We our kids to have diverse online friendships across the globe, but also sharpen their social skills to appreciate the nuance in face-to-face communication.” Just as parents are looking to researchers and experts for ideas on how to work with their teen at home, educators need advice too.

Teachers in training are already thinking about how to balance the power of technology with the distractions in their future classrooms thanks to people like Marialice Curran. Curran is Associate Professor at Saint Joseph University and co-founder of DigCitSummit. When she works with her undergraduates, she encourages them to be intentional about their tech use. “I always ask my teacher candidates if, when they attend a concert or a sporting event, they watch through their device. I remind them be more present and not just watch events happen through a screen. We don’t want our children to see us making and capturing memories through just our devices.”

At the same time, Curran recognizes the power of the technology. “I like that the guidelines from the AAP distinguish the difference between consumption and creation. As a mother and an educator, I believe that it is our responsibility to model the difference.” The thing is, finding the right balance of consumption and creation can lead to some tough conversations in school conference rooms and PTO meetings.

Parenting experts, like DeRosa, agree that working with educators to model and teach this technology balance is well worth the discomfort. “Parents should support their schools’ efforts to bring 21st century learning into the classroom and reinforce appropriate tech use at home. Our kids will need digital skills as they enter the workforce, so we should embrace this change for the sake of our kids’ future.” So how can all adults work together to help our children feel empowered, but not controlled by, the technology in our homes and classrooms?

The answer is digital citizenship

Digital citizenship includes responsible use of technology in order to access resources, manage privacy and safety, contribute ideas, and collaborate with others. Mike Ribble, author of Digital Citizenship in Schools, has been researching and publishing on digital citizenship for well over a decade. He believes the AAP guidelines are parallel to what the digital citizenship community has been talking about for a while. Ribble says, “We are coming closer and closer to where the digital will be dropped in front of citizenship just like AAP dropped screen in front of time. We have changed as a society and technology affords us some great opportunities and will continue to do so. As adults and educators we need to continue to be flexible with our view of technology, but also know its place in our lives and our children’s lives. Technology, like everything, requires a balance and we must now learn how to help everyone know where this exists in our society.”

If conversations about screen time are to be productive, they should move away from the term “screen time” rather quickly. Technology use by students, and adults, must be measure by more than time. Not all time with tech is well spent, but not all of it is poorly spent. When we adults – parents and educators – learn the difference, we can better help our children manage their technology use as well. It is important to remember that none of us will do this without making a few mistakes along the way. Sometimes we will be coaching our kids, and sometimes they will be coaching us. As long as it is a constant conversation, we will be moving in the right direction.

After 13 years as a middle and high school history teacher, today Kerry Gallagher is a Digital Learning Specialist at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Mass., and ConnectSafely’s Director of K-12 Education. Kerry is coordinator of the Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence Student Leadership Institute in July and December. She is the 2014 recipient of the Yale-Lynn Hall Teacher Action Research Prize and is a 2015 PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovator. She was the featured educator for her state’s ISTE affiliate, MassCUE, in November 2015. Recently, Kerry was recognized by Google and the Family Online Safety Institute with the 2015 Outstanding Achievement Award for exceptional work in the field of online safety. She is on Twitter @KerryHawk02 and her website is Start With a Question.