Screen Time: Giving Students a Break from Their Electronics

With educational technology getting cheaper and easier to use, more and more schools are integrating computer-based learning into their daily instruction. We’re also seeing greater access to smartphones, tablets, and big-screen TVs in student homes.

Teachers should find time for classroom activities that do not involve the use of electronic devicesEducators and parents should be thinking about the impact of all this screen time on our schools. These are some screen-related guidelines for teachers to keep in mind:

Be observant

As you work with your students, get an informal feel for just how much time they spend engaging with electronic devices. You may be surprised to realize that your students go from sleep, to a screen on their smartphone, to a classroom with more screens (especially if 1:1 devices are available), and then back to their personal devices, and then home.

If you’re seeing students move from device to device to device, work to minimize their “always-on” time by offering activities and lessons that don’t require so much screen time.

Develop off-screen alternatives

After observing your students’ engagement with electronic devices, make a concerted effort to design and offer activities that don’t require their use. This can include a group project requiring the students to work together to solve a common problem, teach each other something or help prepare for an upcoming assessment.

Before that activity, review with your students the social expectations for the group project — speaking with clarity, exchanging ideas, making eye contact, and respecting the opinions of others. While they’re working on the project, circulate through the classroom to confirm they are meeting expectations.

Help get people talking

We hear a lot of complaints about kids with their “head down in a device” and not getting any face-to-face interaction. While it hasn’t been proven to be harmful (and some studies do show that online connections are as real for students as face-to-face), it certainly is a new dynamic for teachers to consider.

So try to pay attention to how many activities encourage your students to work directly with each other. This can either be face-to-face in conversation or shoulder-to-shoulder in solving a common problem. What it shouldn’t do is take place with two open screens between the students.

Communicate with parents

Parents are rightfully curious about the use of technology in schools. I’ve seen more and more parents, while out in public, use their own tablets and smartphones to engage children. While this leads to quieter and more compliant children (no one misses a crowded plane with a screaming upset child), I can’t help wondering what this does to the child’s development socially and with the written language.

Bright and shiny is engaging, but none of us know the long-term impact of children engaging so heavily with visual imagery at a young age. I hesitate to judge it either good or bad, but I know it’s certainly going to be different.

Get student feedback

Nothing is more soul-deadening to a child than the feeling that school is being done “to” them as opposed to “with” them. As you consider the impact of screen time on the growth and development of your students, reach out to them for their input and feedback.

Never underestimate the capacity of students to offer thoughtful and worthy feedback on any topic. Certainly a topic as near and dear to them as their technology will provide great insight. Having that conversation also enables them to reflect on their own usage patterns and think about whether their engagement is generally healthy for them.

Remember, connectivity is a good thing

We shouldn’t dwell only on the potential pitfalls of screen time. Today’s connective technology has the capacity to enable more collaboration between people (albeit from a distance).

It’s essential to foster students’ capacity to work in this manner, because they’ll need these connectivity skills in the workplace.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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