Should There Be Limits on Students’ Screen Time?

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In case you missed it, ISTE asked me to participate in a Point/Counterpoint faux debate over “screen time.” Unbeknownst to me, my friend Rick Weinberg was my enemy combattant. Had I known, I would have been meaner 🙂

I also didn’t know how Rick responded to the prompt when I wrote my rebuttal.

Nonetheless, I’m quite proud of my contribution in spite of the editing.

I just noticed that the debate was framed in terms of “students” rather than on children. Had I known, I would have raised a ruckus. Schools and educators have no jurisdiction on children’s lives outside of school and there is a growing sentiment in our society that the purpose of children is to “do” school. I reject this premise.

In any event, the complete “debate” may be found in PDF form here.

My argument is as follows:

No! We should not limit screen time for the following reasons:

It is wrong to be capriciously mean to children.
Adults need to do everything possible to create relationships with children based on reciprocal respect and care. Arbitrary rules only escalate intergenerational tension. Every parent knows that making something “forbidden fruit” only raises its attractive powers.

Children only do things for long periods of time that they find interesting.
It is the role of educators to understand that attraction and find ways to channel a student’s capacity for intensity in richer directions.

Educators have (limited) jurisdiction over classrooms and playgrounds, not living rooms.
Who deputized you Barney Fife? Your job title might be technology coordinator, but it’s not video game police.

It is preposterous to suggest that students get too much screen time in school. Even in schools with a laptop per child, computers tend to be quite underused, especially in constructive, creative ways. The average student in a Western industrialized nation uses a school computer less than an hour per week. Too often that paltry time is squandered on school concoctions like keyboarding instruction, tech literacy assessment, or making PowerPoint files on topics of no interest to the student or likely anyone else.

It seems odd that “edtech professionals” would make blanket arguments about technology use. Perhaps we need a greater vision and better ability to articulate the value of computers in education.

It all depends on how you define “screen.”
Only an immature understanding of computing and its potential in the intellectual and creative development of children leads to prohibitions on “screen time.” You never hear thoughtful adults complain about too much pianoing or penciling or paintbrushinging or booking. It is the bankruptcy of our imaginations that leads the edtech community to view all screen-based activities as equivalent.

Perusing the exhibit hall of an edtech conference could easily lead one to want to keep children away from screens altogether. Confections like interactive whiteboards, clickers, and data management systems may produce an illusion of modernity, but they rob children of agency and a chance to achieve their full potential.

It is the bankruptcy of our imaginations that leads the edtech community to view all screen-based activities as equivalent.

There is an alternative. Students using computers to compose music, program simulations, design video games, make films, conduct science experiments, and collaborate with experts need more screen time, not less. What if what children did with computers was good? That standard should replace all others.

Renowned computer scientist Seymour Papert might suggest that questioning the value of “screen time” is similar to asking, “Does wood make good houses?” or “Does paint make great art?” Educators helping children develop fluency in computing—where the computer is an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression that allows users to learn and create in ways unimaginable just a few years ago—never need to ask a question such as “Should we limit screen time?”

September/October 2010 Learning & Leading with Technology. Pp 8-9.

Comments

4 Responses to “Should There Be Limits on Students’ Screen Time?”
  1. Dear Gary,

    At the risk of falling into a Swiftian rabbit hole, I’ll bite. I am a parent, a science teacher, and a retired pediatrician.

    It is wrong to be capriciously mean to children.

    If you care to have a constructive discussion, you’d do better than to assume off the bat that those of us who minimize “screen time” do so to be “capriciously mean.” If an adult believes (and has evidence) that a particular practice may be harmful, well, a responsible adult would limit the harm. I would not allow a two year old to drink whiskey, nor an eight year old drive a car, even if I do risk escalating inter-generational tension.

    Children only do things for long periods of time that they find interesting.

    Another strawman–I’ll counter with a lazy jab. Children breathe, pretty much all the time, whether or not they’re interested.

    More to the point, just because an activity can hold a child’s interest doesn’t make it useful or safe. More than a few of us could have completely blown away our later childhood doing really dumb things that kept our interest.

    If your point is that children find screens interesting, well, um, yeah–that’s why we’re discussing whether screen time should be monitored.

    Educators have (limited) jurisdiction over classrooms and playgrounds, not living rooms.

    Yep, no argument here. I can only control what I can control–but if it’s harmful, then it should be limited. We can debate whether it’s harmful, or whether it cuts into activities that matter more in school.

    I disagree vehemently that computers should be used for science experiments, unless you want to compare the acceleration of an iPod against, say, a Dell PC in a vacuum in a 100 meter fall. Simulated experiments kill inquiry, and should go the way of filmstrips and ink wells.

    I do agree that we need to frame our discussions more coherently–“screen time” is so nebulous it’s near useless. I would also suggest that we tone down the hyperbole. “Bankruptcy of imaginations”? Really?

    I suspect you have other articles where you appeal to the cortex instead of the amygdala, and I’d be glad to read some of them if you’d be kind enough to point the way. You have a wonderful reputation in the edu-sphere. Don’t fritter it away.

  2. admin says:

    I’m a fan of tactile messy science experiences. I don’t believe I made any statement that chooses computers over real stuff. I want kids to have access to the widest deepest range of experiences possible. Nothing in the article I completely stand behind, or in my 29 years of work, suggest otherwise.

  3. I want kids to have access to the widest deepest range of experiences possible.

    Well, we agree on that much. I suspect the screen ultimately limits our experience of the natural world. At any rate, we’ll find out in a generation or two.

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