Parenting is a hard enough job. Do we really need all the sensational headlines warning us that our children are destined for unemployment, obesity, and a lifetime living in our basement?
In all seriousness, in the age of social media, where research and opinions on just about anything related to parenting flood our consciousness, it’s no wonder that some parents are anxious about lasting damage they might be doing to their children with seemingly innocent and innocuous decisions. Determining what really should concern us - and what doesn’t deserve a second thought - is practically a full time job.
A few weeks ago, the district I have the pleasure of leading in the heart of Silicon Valley, the Menlo Park City School District, had a cursory mention in a New York Times piece that attempts to draw some conclusions about the impact of screen time on youth, based mostly on the input of one psychologist from the East Bay promoting his book about the dangers of screen time, and a few disperate and incomplete examples of schools’ and communities’ relationship to technology.
Adding to what I would describe as the superficiality of the article and the lack of research (for example, no one from my district or Hillview Middle School was contacted for background information or an interview, while quotes from a Waldorf representative are included), my district--MPCSD--was set up as a counter example to a “rich” private school that has “eschewed” most screens. While it is true that our flagship Hillview Middle School is both public and a 1:1 device school, it is not the “low income, public school” that the author frames it as to make her point that low income, public school students across the country are being taken advantage of by technology companies out to make students addicted to their products. Quite the contrary. Hillview is, in fact, one of the most well-resourced and thoughtful educational institutions of its kind, one that attracts far more “Silicon Valley executives” (the article’s words, not mine) than the Waldorf school to which the author compares it.
This type of “Google search” journalism for the purposes of making a dramatic point fails to appropriately address the actual concern--screen time’s impact on our youth--and sensationalizes the challenges and responses to an honest problem that parents today face. In this blog, I will attempt to offer some clarity, some perspective, and some hope.
Technology is ubiquitous. It is part of how we “do life.” It can be argued that in the United States today it is nearly impossible to function efficiently and effectively without interacting with technology. In most schools, public and private, technology is a part of students’ learning experience because to deny children access to technology or technical training would be to withhold essential skills for their future success.
In our middle school, we chose to provide each student with their own device because we believed that it could do three things. First, it can make organizational and learning tasks more efficient for the student and teacher and more accessible for all learners. Second, it could provide teachers with the opportunity to reimagine learning experiences. And third, and maybe most importantly, it allowed us to partner with parents in educating their children on the safe and effective use of technology. If parents are going to have to navigate raising their children in the world of technology, who better to partner with than the trusted teachers in their community?
In my opinion, we must stop conflating “scary screen time” (my words, this time) with meaningful and efficient uses of technology in purposeful settings. Simply put, not all screen time is the same. In our district, we take great effort to ensure that technology is not a “shiny toy” meant to impress, but which adds little value. Rather, it is a tool to be used to enhance learning, not overtake it. Teachers in our elementary schools, where by design we do not have 1:1 programs, teach all students using Common Sense Digital Citizenship curriculum. We train all of our middle school students in our “Digital Driver’s Licence” program before students are released to responsibility with their new device. Our skilled district librarians regularly instruct students on how to evaluate digital resources and differentiate between reliable information and opinion, propaganda, or outright lies. Our devices are all managed by the school district, linked to our protected district wireless network, and have strict filters. In recent years, our staff have instituted a daily device-free break and lunch. A visitor to our classrooms would note that students often only use the devices a small portion of their instruction time, and when they do use them, students show a fluency and adeptness with the devices to such a degree that the device almost disappears into the background of effective teaching and engaged learning. And if all else fails? Parents in our schools have a choice to limit or completely disconnect from technology for their child’s learning.
Don’t get me wrong, there are challenges. Those challenges evolve as our experience increases and the technology changes. We meet those challenges head-on with honesty and transparency, trying hard not to be myopic or reactionary in our response. However, now eight years into our initial efforts with 1:1 technology, I can honestly say that our student experience is richer, our instruction is better, and more students’ needs are met because the educators in our schools have been empowered to use technology as a tool for learning.
No educational reform, program, or tool is a panacea. The same resource can be detrimental or helpful, depending on how it is used. Technology is not inherently bad. I have witnessed some of the best teaching occur with nothing more than a chair and time, and I have also observed incredible discovery when technology is involved.
Today’s reality is this: if 90% of what we learned in school 30 years ago in upper elementary and beyond can now be Googled (not scientific, but you get my point), then teaching and learning must adapt to a new reality. This new reality is one in which the teacher is far more influential than simply a provider of low-level (on Bloom’s Taxonomy) knowledge; rather, the teacher is a learning clinician, thoughtfully posing powerful questions, skillfully designing learning experiences that require students to seek knowledge and then apply it, and adeptly providing meaningful and actionable feedback for students to improve their understanding and skill. When well used, technology is not something to fear in the classroom; it is a tool that allows teachers to teach in a more profound manner and students to own more of their learning. I encourage us to embrace the strategic use of technology in our schools, especially as students get older.
I don’t mean to minimize the cases in which technology is being used poorly by schools, particularly in schools that serve students in high poverty. In those cases, we must recognize it and do everything in our power to change it. However, to paint all technology-using schools with a wide brush misses the point altogether.
But if it’s not in schools where we should be most concerned about screens, where is it?
Most of the nefarious technology examples highlighted in the Times article are not found in educational devices; they are found in the small supercomputer that lives in the pockets and backpacks of many, if not most, of our children, some as young as eight. Yes, I’m talking about the smartphone. If we as parents and educators want to really address what is very likely (although research is still very nascent) the cause of the lion’s share of negative impacts of screen time, we need to look no further than the smartphone most of our children feel they deserve. Last year around this time, I wrote a blog in support of the parents who are struggling to determine when is an okay time to get their child a smartphone. I don’t judge. Every child is different. Every family has different expectations. However, if as a parent you are concerned about your child and screen time, I would suggest you thoughtfully consider the age at which you provide your child a smartphone and the rules and expectations you set around the device should you give them one.
A close second to the smartphone for causes of concern are video games. While there are benefits to video games and I am no luddite when it comes to technology, video games have many of the same concerns associated as does the smartphone. For more on this topic, you may read the blog I wrote last year about the content and effects of videogames on children.
It’s hard to be a parent these days. There is so much competing for our child’s attention and devotion. Screen time is today’s parenting “boogeyman” and, like it or not, we have to remain strong, informed, and determined when managing our children’s expectations with technology. It is possible though. Your child may throw a tantrum or two in the process, but for most children, clear boundaries, expectations that are regularly adhered to, and close monitoring of use is a recipe for success.
There is great research being conducted on a myriad of topics related to technology and our kids. As more of the good research is published and as more “tech natives” are themselves leading some of this research, I am confident there will be a large body of evidence that will tell us precisely what to avoid and what to embrace. In the meantime, I hope we won’t allow ourselves to be too reactionary or too protectionist or too judgmental or too laissez faire.
Knowing our own children as we do, combined with a nice balance of skepticism, mixed with practicality, imbued with confidence in our gut, is the best recipe for parenting I can think of. It’s a recipe that can serve us well as we navigate screen time. And, if we can also trust our teachers to find that “just-right” use of technology in the classroom and celebrate that our schools are partnering with us in educating our kids about safe and good uses of technology, maybe - just maybe - we’ll all get through this crazy modern time in which we find ourselves, relatively unscathed. And our kids will (hopefully) end up employed, healthy, and independent!
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.