How I Got My Students to Stop Staring at Screens

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“Why are you so tired?” I asked Robbie, one of my third graders, who was slumped over his desk with bed head. Were you up late last night?”

He nodded.

“What were you doing?”

(Pause.) “Playing Fortnite.”

I shook my head. This wasn’t the first time I’d had this conversation with one of my students. In fact, I was having it more frequently. “How late were you up?”

He hesitated. “Three.”

“On a school night?”

I hate that game.

In today’s digital world, screen saturation is an increasing concern for parents and teachers. The American Heart Association urges parents to limit screen time for children to a maximum of two hours per day. And yet, a large-scale study by Common Sense Media found that children 8- to 12-year-olds average close to five hours a day on screens and teens about seven and a half hours daily, not including use of screens at school. It’s a mind-boggling statistic. When COVID-19 swept the country and kids parked in front of their computers at home, these numbers soared. Screen time went on steroids.

Too much time with digital devices has been linked to a host of problems, including sleep disorders, obesity, mental health issues, low self-esteem, depression, aggressive behavior, and poorer academic performance. The more time kids spend in front of screens, the less time they are outdoors, being physically active, and developing social skills. It has been suggested that too much screen time can impact children’s imaginative play by stunting their senses with a constant stream of entertainment.

It’s no secret that tech products are designed to be hyperarousing. The use of technology increases dopamine levels, the neurotransmitter most involved in addiction. Some digital health experts call screens “electronic cocaine.” And our kids are overdosing. If you have children or work them, you’ve surely it. A friend of mine’s seven-year-old has a meltdown when asked to stop watching his favorite shows on the phone. It’s pretty much a daily occurrence. Another friend got a call from her daughter’s school saying that they had reason to believe she had stolen an iPad from the tech cart. Sure enough, her mom found it. In his clinical work with teenagers, Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, one of the country’s foremost addiction experts, has reported that in some cases it was easier for him to treat crystal meth addicts than video gamers or social media addicts.

Teachers also see the problems with devices firsthand. We see the students who resist pen and paper but can’t resist the YouTube videos that are only one click away. We observe the trancelike expressions on kids’ faces when using educational programs that resemble video games. We witness the children who can’t focus, have wandering attention spans, aren’t able to finish a book, and don’t want to write about anything else but Minecraft. We see the students who are apathetic and uninterested unless they are plugged in. Many teachers, especially those in middle and high school, also see how distracted students get by their phones. A high school teacher I know teaches six classes a day with an average of thirty kids in each one. One day she asked her students in each class to tell her how many notifications they got on their phones during the period. Here are the totals from these six classes: Facebook, 21; Twitter, 29; Instagram, 58; YouTube, 74; Snapchat, 352; text 996. totals from these six classes: Facebook, 21; Twitter, 29; Instagram, 58; YouTube, 74; Snapchat, 352; text, 996.

In today’s classroom, students spend a huge amount of time in front of screens. In a typical third-grade class, for example, it’s not uncommon to see children practicing math with a program such as Freckle, pecking away on iPads during writing time, reviewing spelling words with SpelllingCity, reading e-books on Raz-Kids during silent reading, and conducting research on the internet for social studies. Then they go home and complete their homework online. As children get older, the amount of screen time only increases. And, of course, kids are on their devices for recreation, too. They get no break from it.

Parents are pushing back. Across the nation, moms and dads are asking school boards for less screen time, not more. They are urging districts to offer low-tech classrooms or those that are screen free. Some parents are taking their children out of tech-heavy schools and putting them into those that offer less. Others are pulling their kids out of the school altogether to homeschool them. My friend calls it “low-tech parenting.”

But how else can parents and caretakers tackle this problem that is (literally) right in front of our eyes? With our ever-increasing dependence on technology it’s not easy. Following are a few guardrails that helped me in the classroom and will help families stem the tech tide.

First, don’t let tech blind you. For many parents (and teachers) there is an unquestioned bias that anything incorporating technology is simply better. We’re told that kids will be unable to compete in the modern world if they’re not on their screens. Educational technology companies want us to believe that technology improves student learning, but the truth is that there is little rigorous evidence to support this. The use of tech in schools is industry driven, not pedagogically driven. In my own teaching, I didn’t see kids retain more when reading from screens than from books. I never found an app that taught math better than a teacher could.

Perhaps tellingly, it is well known that Silicon Valley titans put their children in low-tech schools. The Waldorf School of the Peninsula, one of the most sought-after private school in the area, bans the use of electronic devices for students under eleven. The school teaches the children of Facebook, Apple, and Google how to cook, knit, and build go-carts instead. Educators at the Waldorf Schools don’t seem to be worried that their students won’t be prepared for the future. The parents aren’t either. They understand that twenty-first-century employers are looking for graduates who are curious, intrinsically motivated, can think out of the box, and solve problems—not if they can make a PowerPoint.

Second, have an honest conversation with your kids about screen time—just like you would about smoking, bullying, or drugs. You can even have this talk with the little ones. The average age of children who have smartphones is now nine. In my class discussions, I’d explain the negative effects of too much time spent in front of a screen. We’d talk about how children who spend an excessive amount of time on their devices may not want to play with their friends as much, make things, read books, or spend time outdoors. Kids get it. They witness this happening to their siblings and classmates.

Third, If you’re concerned about your child’s time with devices, bring it up at the parent-teacher conference. Teachers can help. When it came up at mine, I found that some parents thought they had a handle on it but didn’t. Some were oblivious. Some admitted that they didn’t how what to do. If a parent asked for suggestions, I’d share the following tips: 1) Know what your child is playing and watching. Many don’t; 2) Set no-tech zones at home, including the bedroom, the dinner table, the car, and so on; 3) Have children complete their homework in a central location—say, the kitchen table—so you can keep an eye on them; 4) Control the internet at home by giving kids a password with a time limit. (Some children figure out how to override this); and 6) Be a stickler about the rules. If kids break them, have a consequence such as they’re offline for twenty-four hours. I’d also leave the parents with this: books instead of tablets, sports instead of TV, Legos instead of Xbox.

Fourth, one effective way to get kids thinking about screen time is to have them track their screen time minutes for a week. Do it again the following week and challenge them to see if they can lower the total. Screen minutes are like calories. It’s always a surprise when you start adding them up. One week, while my students were tracking their classroom time with devices, I asked them to get out their laptops. One child called out, “Mr. Done, could we possibly do it without them? The whole class agreed. They were determined to beat the previous week’s number. For older kids, have them keep track of their time on social media. Kids are often surprised at how many hours they spend in the black hole of cyberspace.

Also, think about having tech-free days every now and then. This means, of course, that you would have to stay clear of the screens too. Once, on a screen-free Friday at school, one of my third graders walked into the classroom at recess and caught me on the phone. She shook her head, wagged her finger at me, then tattled to the rest of the class.

Fifth, parents and teachers will oftentimes give children a tablet or laptop to keep kids busy and quiet. Give them compelling alternatives instead: water the garden, build a fort, make a book jacket, organize your backpack, hop on a bike, make butter by pouring heavy cream in to baby food jars and letting kids shake them till the cream turns to butter. Warning: After a few minutes, some kids will complain that their arms are sore. Sometimes we let kids use devices as a reward. If you want to reward kids, open the door, not the laptops. Then take them outside.

Finally, consider holding a screen-free contest with your kids by challenging them to stay away from all screens (outside of school) for a couple days—or an entire week. Have some kind of reward if they meet the challenge. For my contests, participation was optional. Most of my students would begin the challenge, but as the week went on, more and more would drop out. When I’d ask them why, their reasons would be: YouTube, the Disney Channel, video games, and Netflix. Once, a child told me that she was doing great until Dancing with the Stars came on TV. That did her in.

During your no-screen contest, have your kids make a list of all the things that they can do instead of using a device. It’s a nice way to remind them that there is life beyond the screen. One day when I was reading Robbie’s list—the same Robbie who was going to bed at three in the morning—I laughed when I saw what he had written: “ride a bicycle, chase pigeons, slide down the stairs,” and “stand in another room while your brother is playing Fortnite, but don’t look. Just listen.”

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