Students Are Behaving Badly in Class. Excessive Screen Time Might Be Blame

Without even counting digital instruction, the amount of time teenagers and tweens spend staring at computer screens rivals how much time they would spend working at a full- or a part-time job. Educators and children’s health experts alike argue students need more support to prevent the overuse of technology from leading to unhealthy behaviors in the classroom.

According to an annual report from the nonprofit Common Sense Media, screen use for children and adolescents ages 8 to 18 jumped 17 percent between 2019 and 2021—a steeper increase than in the four years prior to the pandemic. Screen use rose by nearly 50 minutes per day for those ages 8 to 12 (tweens) to five hours and 33 minutes per day, and by more than an hour and 15 minutes for teenagers, to eight hours and 39 minutes per day. And those increases do not include students’ screen time in class or for schoolwork.

Teachers say they see the effects of heightened digital exposure in the classroom. In a nationally representative survey by the EdWeek Research Center in February, 88 percent of educators reported that in their experience, students’ learning challenges rose along with their increased screen time. Moreover, 80 percent of educators said student behavior worsened with more screen time. Over a third said student behavior has gotten “much worse” due to rising screen time.

In my opinion/experience, when the amount of screen time increases, student learning challenges typically:

Behavior associated problems with excessive screen time were relatively well-known even before the pandemic, including: ramped-up reactions to stress, poorer focus and executive skillsand higher risk of both acting out and internalized depression or anxiety. In some cases, studies have even found students’ technology-related focus problems can be severe enough to be misdiagnosed as attention deficit disorders.

What counts as too much screen time?

But it’s less clear just what kind and how much digital activity qualifies as “excessive.” The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children ages 2 to 5 get no more than an hour of any sort of screen time a day, but it sets no time limits for school or recreational digital use for school-age children.

A massive research analysis released at the start of the pandemic found that the amount of daily screen time builds across devices; an hour of playing on a tablet or phone apps followed by a couple of television shows and another hour of internet browsing, quickly adds up to four hours of screen time.

The timing of digital use matters too. Minimal screen time after dark on top of excessive screen time during the day can significantly damage sleep for children and adolescents, according to Michelle Garrison, a sleep specialist and research associate professor in child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Washington in Seattle.

In part, that’s because the blue light exuded by many digital devices mimics bright sunlight and delays the release of melatonin, the chemical that regulates natural sleep cycles. Garrison said video games and social media that trigger reward mechanisms in the brain also make it more difficult for children to quiet their brain activity, reducing both the quality and quantity of the sleep they get. This, in turn, can make students more tired and irritable and less focused on learning the following day.

“Sleep isn’t actually always a valued goal for tweens and teens,” Garrison said in a briefing for the Children and Screens Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.

It’s important for educators to help students connect their sleep habits to other goals they do care about, she said: “Whether that’s getting into less fights with their parents or siblings or their girlfriends or boyfriends, or doing better at school, or even being faster at soccer practice, there’s lots of different things that are downstream effects of getting more sleep. Often those are things that we can really leverage to get tweens and teens more motivated to work with us around media use.”

Context and content are critical when evaluating use of digital devices

Lumping together different kinds of screen time is a mistake, experts say. There are no studies that analyze the interactions between school and out-of-school screen time, but studies have shown that time spent on educational content can be beneficial even when non-educational content on the same platform has negative effects.

“Research suggests that what kids actually do with that screen time and the context of that use is a better predictor of outcomes, both positive and negative” than total hours on a device, said Michael Robb, the senior research director at Common Sense Media. “Completing an assignment on Google Docs is not the same thing as watching TikTok videos, is not the same thing as playing video games, is not the same thing as FaceTime chat. All these things are very different; they serve different needs.”

Experts stressed the need for schools to teach students healthy technology behaviors as explicitly as they teach in-person classroom behaviors and social norms. That means helping students to become mindful about:

  • physical effects: Identifying when and how technology use may change a student’s sleep, eating, or exercise routines. For example, students may learn how to schedule screen time or change color settings to improve sleep.
  • mental effects: Identifying when technology use is causing cognitive stress or emotional distress. For example, students can learn how to limit their use of social media sites that spark negative body images of themselves, or they can take breaks from screen time when they have difficulty focusing.
  • social effects: Identifying how to be a “good digital citizen,” including protecting your own and others’ privacy and being in civil rather than bullying ways on digital platforms. This also means teaching students how to balance in-person and online socializing.

Teaching students to choose higher-quality digital content can also improve behavior. For example, University of Washington researchers found that preschoolers’ behavior problems fell when their parents substituted educational and positive social content for more violent content, even without reducing the children’s total screen time.

For example, when the Wichita, Kan., public schools district invested in tablets for all its students, it also trained teachers in a digital citizenship curriculum. That content includes lessons on creating balance in digital use, respecting others online, and thinking critically about the content consumed.

Garrison emphasized that schools and parents should work to give students opportunities to practice making healthy decisions about digital use and engaging in positive behavior, rather than setting up total bans on digital devices.

“For many reasons, the abstinence-only approach to media use is not always the best,” she said. “So many students … talk to me about how they’re really, really struggling, because they’ve never had to be the one who’s in charge of when the device is shut off at night.”

Kristen Craft, the former principal of Andover High School in Andover, Kan., and the 2021 Kansas Principal of the Year, agrees. Craft encourages more video game esports activities in her school to help rebuild engagement for students whose main social connections had been digital during the pandemic. Esports teams in schools provide structure and team connections for competitive video gaming which might otherwise be more solitary.

Craft said she is seeing students struggling to regulate their behavior “because they spent so much time not having structure and guidance. I would say that [student] behavior issues are better when they have [digital use] that’s purposeful like esports.”

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