How I Got My Students to Stop Staring at Screens

“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. It was actually something I did more often. “How late were you up?”

He hesitated. “Three.”

“On a school night?”

It is disgusting.

In today’s digital world, screen saturation is an increasing concern for parents and teachers. American Heart Association advises that parents limit children’s screen time to no more than two hours per day. Common Sense Media conducted a study that found children aged 8-12 years old spend an average of five hours per day using screens, while teens consume seven hours and a quarter hours each day. This is not counting the time spent at school. It’s a mind-boggling statistic. These numbers skyrocketed when COVID-19 was introduced to the nation and children sat at their homes in front of computers. The rise of screen time was a miracle.

A host of issues have been associated with too much digital time, such as sleep disorders, obesity and mental health problems. Screen time is associated with a decreased ability to be outside and develop 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. Technology increases levels of dopamine, which is the most important neurotransmitter 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. It was found by her mother, which is a good thing. 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 see firsthand the difficulties with technology. 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. Without their devices plugged in, we see students who become apathetic and disinterested. Teachers, particularly those at middle school and high schools, are often shocked by how easily distracted their students become from their smartphones. One high school teacher that I know has six classes per day and an average of 30 students in each. She asked each of her classes to give her their total number of notifications received during the class period. Below are six classes’ totals: Facebook 21, Twitter 29, Instagram, 56; YouTube, 774; 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. They then go to home and do their homework online. The amount of screen time children spend online increases as they get older. Children are also using their screens for entertainment. They are never bored.

They are responding. Moms and fathers across the nation are asking for less screen time. Districts should offer classrooms that have low tech or are free from screen time, they are being urged. Parents are moving their kids out of high-tech schools to enroll them in ones that provide less technology. Some parents opt to take their children out of school and homeschool them. My friend calls it “low-tech parenting.”

What can parents do to help their children and caregivers deal with this issue that’s literally in front of them? With our ever-increasing dependence on technology it’s not easy. Here are some tips that I found helpful in teaching and can help you to stop the tide of technology.

First, don’t let tech blind you.Many parents and teachers believe that technology in any form is superior. We’re told that kids will be unable to compete in the modern world if they’re not on their screens. Education technology companies claim that technology helps students learn, however there’s not enough evidence. Technology is used in schools because it’s profitable, not because of pedagogical reasons. In my own teaching, I didn’t see kids retain more when reading from screens than from books. There was no app I found that could teach math as well as a teacher.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, but Silicon Valley giants often send their kids to low-tech schools. Waldorf School of the Peninsula is a highly-regarded private school that bans the use of electronics for children under 11. It teaches children at Apple, Google, and Facebook how to make go-carts, as well as knitting and cooking. 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, engage in a honest discussion with your children about screen time—just like you would about smoking, bullying, or drugs. This conversation can be had with your children. Children who use smartphones are now on average nine years old. 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. Children witness it happening to their peers and sibling.

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 can override the password, but it is possible to be strict about following these 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: A great way for kids to think about screen timeIt is a good idea to ask them to track how many minutes they spend on their screens each week. You can do the same thing again next week. Then challenge them to reduce their screen time. Screen minutes can be compared to calories. It’s always a surprise when you start adding them up. My students had been tracking their time in class with their devices for a week. I asked them to take out their laptops. One child called out, “Mr. Do you think we could do this without them? All of them agreed. They were determined to beat the previous week’s number. Older children can keep track their social media time. Many children are surprised by how much time they spend online.

Consider having tech-free times every once in a while. You would need to avoid the screen, but this does not mean you can’t use your phone. On a Friday that was screen-free, my third grader walked into class at recess to catch me talking on the phone. The third grader shook her head and wiggled her fingers at me before turbulating to the rest.

Fiveth, many parents or teachers give kids a tablet and laptop in order to keep them busy.Instead, give them convincing alternatives: Water the garden, create a fort and organize your backpack. Make butter with heavy cream. Let kids shake the jars until the cream becomes butter. Warning:Some children will soon complain about their sore arms after a while. As a reward, we sometimes let children use their devices. You should reward children with the physical act of opening doors and not laptops. Next, take them outside.

Consider holding an all-screen contest with your children. by challenging them to stay away from all screens (outside of school) for a couple days—or an entire week. You can reward those who meet your challenge. Participation was not required in my contests. My students were most likely to take up the challenge. However, as time went by, they dropped out more. When I’d ask them why, their reasons would be: YouTube, the Disney Channel, video games, and Netflix. A child once told me she did great and was still doing well. Dancing with the StarsShe saw it on TV. This did it.

Have your children make a list with all of the activities they could do without a screen during your contest. 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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