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Legislation passed to limit risks from screen use in schools

Maryland has become the first state in the US to pass classroom screen safety legislation, shortly after the general assembly voted unanimously in favour of the bill. The state is the first to pass a law of this kind, but other states are expected to follow. Guidelines to protect children against the effects of excessive screen exposure have been developed by the Maryland Department of Education, who were required to do so in consultation with the Health Department.

The guidelines include (among others):

  • considering school students age and development and the importance of time limits, especially for younger children. Time limit recommendations are for 10 - 20 minute periods of screen use. Submissions included an example that learning could be on screens for the first 20 minutes of a period, but that it must not be for the next 20 minutes, so that schools can ensure and show accountability for screen breaks with a regular and predictable pattern

  • students should be seated upright at a desk... with screens approximately 20 inches from their eyes

  • adjust lighting to ensure minimal contrast between device light and classroom lighting, to reduce eye strain

  • supervise students while they use devices

  • reward good behaviour with social interaction or physical activities (not screen time).

Importantly, the 20-20-20 rule for protecting vision was not included, (for every 20 minutes on a screen look away for 20 seconds), with recognition that this recommendation has no peer reviewed studies or has even been evaluated at all - in fact it was developed by an engineer.

Additional considerations to mitigate the risks to vision from screens included submissions from child safety advocates and health professionals to ensure that school breaks were screen free with outdoor activity encouraged to reduce the risk of myopia, and to begin public health campaigns to alert families and schools to risks from excessive screen time. Working towards increased eye exams was recommended, not only to detect developing myopia but also screening for dry eye disease. Additional advise included ensuring that headphones/ear buds were used minimally and were volume limited <80 decibels to reduce the risk of hearing loss. The WHO estimates that more than a billion young people are at risk of hearing loss from portable devices, including smartphones.

A prominent reason for developing these guidelines was not only due to the amount of research indicating risks to health from high screen use, but that devices manufacturers also have clearly acknowledged risks and have safety guidelines to reduce the risk of injury from using their products. Most schools have been unaware of manufacturers guidelines and are not following them, and this has become an issue of liability for US schools.

While some child safety advocates have criticised the guidelines for being short on research that was readily available and not going far enough, it has been acknowledged as a good start that will hopefully raise awareness.

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