How Much Screen Time is Good For Children at School?

A student in Elizabeth Marquez's fourth grade class completes an activity on one of the classroom computers. Students at Miramonte Elementary School in Clovis are encouraged to develop technology skills.
A student in Elizabeth Marquez’s fourth grade class completes an activity on one of the classroom computers. Students at Miramonte Elementary School in Clovis are encouraged to develop technology skills. Photo: Derek Walter

The fourth grade students in Elizabeth Marquez’s class at Miramonte Elementary School in Clovis are glued to their screens. They’re pinching, swiping and typing.

It’s by no means a casual exercise or a mindless gaming session — unlike how time on a computer, tablet or smartphone is often characterized. By the time the lesson is over, the students will have deconstructed food webs, written responses in a Google Doc and digitally shared their answers with the teacher.

Schools increasingly look like this as they move to embrace technology. Yet, as schools go digital, some students may be hearing a different message when they get home. Parents are routinely cautioned to keep a close eye on how much time their children spend in front of a screen.

The American Academy of Pediatricians recommends that children older than 2 spend no more than two hours a day in front of a screen, with those experiences being from “high-quality content.” Those younger than two should not use media devices at all, the doctors’ group says.

The worry is that if children spend too much time in front of screens, they may miss out on activities that are necessary for proper brain and body development. 

“Studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity,” the academy’s position statement reads. Parents also need to be cautious about the websites their children visit and the people they interact with online, according to the academy.

Focus on quality

However, computers can be useful in the classroom, and it’s important for students to be technology literate, some education experts say. In addition, most students must now complete the state’s standardized tests using computers.

Child development expert Yalda T. Uhls believes there is a distinction between interactive, educational games and mind-numbing TV. The former TV and film executive, and the author of Media Moms and Digital Dads, said parents need to evaluate the content of the media their children are consuming.

“The current thinking from researchers is that content choice is more important than time spent,” Uhls said.

Still, “balance is always key, (and) making sure a child has physical activity and other activities is important.”

Uhls believes children may benefit from certain computer programs that are geared toward their age group or learning style. Digital games can teach math skills, reasoning or reading, for example.

Computer programs can also lead to conversations with parents. The key is parental involvement, Uhls said.

Michael Robb, the director of research for Common Sense Media, said parents should look for computer programs that encourage creativity and communication.

“Follow your child’s lead if they are interested in something,” he said. “Even if you’re not playing the game with your kid you can ask them later about what they’re doing.”

Teacher Marquez said the students in her class are fairly familiar with the ins and outs of using a tablet or computer to do basic tasks or play entertaining games and videos. The challenge is in getting them to understand computing as a tool for learning.

“They often come in and see these devices are something for play, but they don’t always have the sense of how they’re possible for learning and academics,” she said. “Through our time with computers and the research projects we undertake, they’re able to be collaborative and learn what is possible with an academic focus.”

The students in her class collaborate with tools like Google Classroom and Microsoft Sway, and they can use these programs at home too, when working on homework assignments.

Marquez also uses a program called Class Dojo to track her students’ behavior. The program allows parents to get real-time updates.

For young children, still caution

The situation is different, however, for very young children, especially those under three years old. According to research from Zero to Three, which published a white paper in 2014 about the potential impacts and the best recommendations for parents, screen time should be monitored so that children don’t miss out on other learning opportunities from the non-digital world.

Toddlers, for example, are trying to learn and understand the 3-D world, but screens depict only two dimensions.

The Zero to Three report, which was created by The Early Learning Project at Georgetown University, has an extensive number of recommendations to help parents that might be wondering about how to manage screen time, particularly with young children. Among the recommendations are:

  • Set limits on screen time to be sure that children have plenty of time exploring the real, 3-D world with family and friends.
  • Participate and make screen use interactive, talking about what children are seeing, and encouraging them to use their minds and bodies as much as possible to maximize learning.
  • Help children bridge the gap between content they are exposed to on screens, such as new words and concepts, and their real-life experiences.

The AAP, meanwhile, recommends that parents establish “screen-free” zones at home by making sure there are no televisions, computers or video games in children’s bedrooms, and by turning off the TV during dinner. Children and teens should engage with entertainment media for no more than one or two hours per day, and that should be high-quality content, the group says, adding that it’s important for kids to spend time playing outdoors and using their imaginations.

The students in Marquez’s class will be in a good position to show their parents how to strike a balance between using devices for learning while still interacting with the world around them. They’ll finish the school year having completed interactive projects and learned some online safety.

Marquez said she’s seeing some of these effects already.

“They’re already going home and telling their parents to use safe passwords and showing them the type of work they’re doing at school,” she said. “They’re showing their parents the power of using technology to learn.”

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