Special Report
School & District Management

School Principals Overwhelmingly Concerned About Children’s Screen Time

By Christina A. Samuels — April 17, 2018 7 min read
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Technology is entwined in the lives of the children who attend Johnson Elementary School in Charlottesville, Va.—perhaps too deeply, said Principal Summerlyn Thompson.

Thompson, the leader of the PK-4 school since 2013, has seen some of her students arriving at school bleary-eyed from lack of sleep. She believes the culprits are television and digital devices.

“I’ve had to tell kindergarten parents to take the television out of their kids’ rooms,” said Thompson, who leads a diverse school of about 365 students. Some parents have told Thompson they hide tablets and cellphones at night, but their resourceful children have found them while their parents are sleeping.

No surprise, then, that Thompson is among the 95 percent of principals who indicated in an exclusive Education Week Research Center survey that students spend too much time on devices when they’re not in school.

“We see the effect of the interference of screen time with human interaction,” Thompson said. Too much time on screens means students “are not learning how to be still in their seat. They’re not learning how to talk with you.”

A nationally representative sample of more than 500 principals, assistant principals, and school deans were surveyed for this report.

Only about 2 percent of principals surveyed said that students are spending “the right amount” of time on devices when they are not in school. About 3 percent said that students were not spending enough time using technology at home.

When it comes to the school day, however, principals are much more likely to believe they’ve found the right balance. Nearly 2 in 3 respondents said that students spend the right amount of time using screens at school. In contrast, about 17 percent said that students are spending too much time on devices during the school day, and 19 percent said students don’t spend enough time on devices while they’re in class.

Principals did feel that some academic activities are well-suited for technology tools while others are not. Eighty-eight percent of school leaders surveyed said that devices with screens are best for conducting research. But a little more than half of principals, 56 percent, felt that paper-and-pencil approaches were better for learning math skills.

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Mario Santos, the principal of the 2,000-student East Side High School in Newark, N.J., said he tries to pay close attention to the purposes for which devices are being used in the classroom. The high school is the home of a new media-studies magnet program, which teaches graphic design, animation, and video production.

“These students are creating documentaries, animated films, [public service announcements],” said Santos, whose high school, with a predominantly Hispanic population, is the largest in the city. “They’re active participants and they’re using the technology to serve them, not the other way around.”

Andrew Lindsay, an assistant principal at Owen Intermediate School in Belleville, Mich., said the teachers at his 680-student school are just now catching up with the students.

“One of the biggest challenges we have is that teachers are analog natives at this stage of the game, and our students are all digital natives,” Lindsay said. “The learning curve for use of technology is all at the teacher level.”

But the excitement is building among teachers to incorporate technology into their lessons, Lindsay said.

“For the first time, I feel like our staff in general feels limited by the lack of technology access—which we’re hoping to improve,” Lindsay said. “The leader in me is OK with the way they’re feeling right now, because there’s a hunger for more.”

Lisa Guernsey, the director of the Learning Technologies Project for the think tank New America, said that the concern over the amount of time that children and youths spend using devices is not unique to principals.

But she said that measuring the impact of technology requires more nuanced thinking than just counting up the hours.

“It’s so important to think about technology as something more than just a monolithic word that just means everything,” Guernsey said. She wrote Screen Time: How Electronic Media—From Baby Videos to Educational Software—Affects Your Young Child and co-authored Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens.

“We are in a moment where we see kids looking at devices and screens, and because we are not engaged in that game, we automatically think this is some kind of mindless activity where they are lost,” she said. “We don’t take the next step to watch with them, play with them, talk about what they’re doing.”

In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledged as much. Nearly two decades ago, the organization said that parents should discourage all electronic-media use in children younger than 2. But in its new guidelines, the pediatricians group acknowledges that some exposure to high-quality media—"Sesame Street,” for example—can have educational value for children as young as 18 months. For school-aged children, the AAP recommends that families should balance media use with other healthy behaviors.

Patricia Greenfield, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the director of the Children’s Digital Media Center @ Los Angeles, researches the developmental implications of social media and television. Principals are right to be concerned about technology use outside of school, she said, and they should be equally as concerned about technology use during the school day.

A stack of tablets are stored on a table at Bobby Ray Memorial Elementary in McMinnville, Tenn.

And for Greenfield, it’s not the content alone that is troublesome.

“What I’m thinking of is technology as a form, the medium. Screens versus in-person interactions,” she said. “There are benefits and there are costs.”

For example, Greenfield co-authored a research paper in 2014 that surveyed 9- to 14-year-olds, asking them about their television and social-media diet and their aspirations for the future. Heavy consumers of social media and TV tended to have more individualistic goals, such as the desire to be famous. The youths who said they spent more time on activities such as team sports were more likely to have collectivist aspirations, such as a desire to help others in need.

“Schools need to be giving a lot of time for social interaction and need to value prosocial behavior,” Greenfield said.

The concerns about technology use often assume that all students and schools have equal access to it, however. For Monti Hillis, the principal of Bobby Ray Memorial Elementary School in rural McMinnville, Tenn., that’s not true.

She believes students in her school, located in a rural community about 75 miles southeast of Nashville, don’t get enough access to technology, either outside school or during the school day.

“Really, our children are at a disadvantage, and that plays into so many things as far as their career choice, as far as their grades,” Hillis said.

For example, she’d love for her students to have more opportunities to take virtual field trips, or to enrich their science learning with online lessons and virtual dissections.

Hillis said she tries to divert most of her school funds to technology purchases when she can.

“I haven’t bought playground equipment in a long time,” Hillis said. “But when I look at it, I can buy a piece of playground equipment for $10,000. How many Chromebooks can that buy?”

Hayet Woods, the principal of Symington Elementary in Kansas City, Mo., leads a Title I school that is uniquely technology-rich.

Bobby Ray Memorial Elementary School Principal Monti Hillis said educators and policymakers should not assume all students and schools have regular access to technology in and outside of school.

Through the Obama administration’s ConnectED initiative, Symington, which enrolls grades 1-6, is one of only 114 schools across the country to receive a grant from Apple that provides iPads to every student.

Woods, like many principals, is concerned that students spending too much time in front of screens—whether at home or in school—could lead to overuse of social media and the potential problems associated with such behavior.

She has experienced tragedy tied to social media. Woods was a middle school principal in 2015 when a 14-year-old student, Alexis Kane, was lured out of her home after exchanging messages with a man through Facebook Messenger. Kane was later shot and killed in the early morning at a Kansas City water park.

Woods’ specific concerns are that children and youths may be sharing too much information about themselves online. Her school uses a social-media curriculum through Common Sense Media that students must complete before they can take their iPads home. Woods said teachers also explain the importance of using their time wisely on their devices. Because the initiative provides a limited amount of wireless internet access for students to use at home, homework must come first.

“This does have to be explicitly taught,” Woods said. “Our job is to prepare them to be responsible citizens. We have to do everything to help them be responsible with the device they have.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2018 edition of Education Week as Weighing Limits on Screen Time

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