In a digital world
Are risks even relevant when this is the world children live in now?
This is an interesting point and frequent argument by schools. While the content is different, interesting comparisons can be made with the same argument historically, with regards to smoking -'it's just the way of the world now, what can we do,' (Clement & Miles, 2018). Schools even provided a place for students to smoke during the day, to meet them on their level. It sounds ludicrous now, but of course, we know that policies and education campaigns have since reduced teen smoking to its lowest levels.
Some education literature does take the view that digital technology is so important, digital literacy needs to come first, before health concerns. "Rather than starting with the question 'how do we keep children safe', media literacy educators step outside the boundaries of a harm-or-not paradigm to ask, 'how can we help children become literate in a digital world," (Donohue, 2015).
With evidence showing that moderate computer use is the most effective for improving educational outcomes and digital literacy, this rather mutually exclusive approach seems unnecessary.
The exceptional circumstance of lockdowns and learning from home that have occured in 2020 could bring this point into further question. Looking to international recommendations, Australian experts have advised that teachers, as much as possible, design learning tasks with components that don't require technology use - see "Overview" for further infomation. China has placed limits on time that can be spent learning online, and India has unveiled plans to do the same so children do not "get affected negatively owing to its prolonged use."
One potential hurdle to developing guidelines for the use of digital technology in education, is the view that technology is changing so quickly that we can't look to evidence when making decisions. However, there is a large and growing body of evidence on this topic. This view has also recently been challenged by Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer. While referring to regulation of social media, his comments apply to other areas of technology. “People in government need to reject the notion that somehow technology is so fast moving or magical that they can’t keep up.”
Another common pushback is that children need smartphone and ubiquitous device access, and that we just need to teach them how to self-regulate, as this is what they will have to do as adults in a digital environment.
It is very important that our children learn to be responsible users of smartphones and other devices. Some experts advise that this should be addressed at high school level.
But there's a problem with teaching kids to be responsible users or asking them to sign contracts, and then expecting that they will use their devices for learning purposes only. Kids and teens have a lower ability to control their impulses.
The brain's area for impulse control, self-regulation and planning - the prefrontal cortex - is not fully developed until around the age of 25. As the cortex develops and children begin to gain self-control and regulation skills in other areas of their life, their ability to self-regulate screen time will also improve. This doesn't mean that responsible device-use shouldn't be addressed, it means having realistic expectations and boundaries for our kids as they develop.
Conversely, research has shown the more time children spend on screens, the more they use them later in life, and the more difficulty they have turning them off when they become adults.
Children respond to digital technology differently, and parents are the best judge of their own children. Children's personal recreational device use is a family decision. Parents who are struggling can access these resources:
But for some, parenting choices are being directly impacted by their school's policies.
Schools have a duty of care and a legal obligation to keep children safe.
If you are concerned about the amount or the way digital technology is being used in your child's school, go to 'What can I do?' for an easy letter template that can help you write to the Ministry of Education. You can also email this to your school principal and your board of trustees. The MOE's email address is email@example.com.
"If a young person has friends, walks to and from school, feels the rain and the wind, I don’t think that’s enough. If they spend a significant part of their school day on a device, if they do homework and spend some recreational time on a device, it is likely to impact on their development"
References not included in hyperlinks:
Clement & Miles, (2018). Screen schooled: Two veteran teachers expose how technology overuse is making our kids dumber. Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
Donohue, C (Ed.), Technology and Digital Media in the early years: Tools for teaching and learning. New York, NY: Routledge, 2015. Print.