Teacher Tips: How to Reduce Screen Time When School Is Online

By Catherine Gewertz — October 05, 2020 | Corrected: October 14, 2020 8 min read
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Corrected: This article originally included the incorrect name for Joy Hakim’s book. It is A History of US.

Like a long shadow sweeping the country, the coronavirus has transformed K-12 schooling, forcing millions of students to learn from home, parked in front of computers for many hours each week. And that’s triggered new concerns about how much time kids are spending looking at screens.

Santhana Pierre’s daily schedule offers a glimpse of many students’ new realities. The 10th grader opted for the all-remote option at her school, Pathways College Preparatory in St. Albans, N.Y. She’s on her laptop in her bedroom or on the living room couch pretty much constantly for the school’s entire day, which runs from 8:30 a.m.to 1:39 p.m. After a quick break, she goes back to the screen to start her homework.

“I hate it. It gets me so tired,” she said. “I never really leave the screen all day except for lunch break. I wish we had more assignments that were off the screen.”

How much time kids spend with digital screens is hardly a new concern. Adults have worried about it for years, mindful of research showing that excessive time using computer screens or watching TV is linked to eye strain, trouble sleeping, and other difficulties. The American Academy of Pediatrics urges parents to set consistent limits on screen time, but doesn’t specify maximum time parameters for children 5 to 18.

Screen Time ‘On Steroids’

But now, when the pandemic has shuttered many school buildings, children are adding dozens of hours of screen time each week as they learn remotely. A massive review of research on screen time, landing in the journal JAMA Pediatrics just as schools closed down in March, was a tart reminder of the risks that were about to escalate.

“The same screen-time issues we faced before COVID, now we’re facing them on steroids,” said Seth Evans, who leads the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s work on digital devices in schools.

Off-screen learning is particularly important when there are still so many students who don’t have regular or sufficient access to devices and the internet, said Michael Barbour, an associate professor of education at Touro University California who specializes in virtual learning.

“Regardless of whether screen time is good or bad for kids, strictly from an equity perspective, teachers should be thinking about how they can deliver instruction in ways that don’t involve a screen,” he said.

But these concerns are colliding with reality. Many teachers trying to manage their students'—and their own—screen use are caught in a bind if their districts require hefty doses of logged-on school time.

“So much of what the kids do, even when they are with me, is on the computer,” said Shannon Guevarez, who teaches 4th grade at South Hanover Elementary School in Hershey, Pa., where students come to school some days and learn from home on others. “They need some opportunities to just close their screens sometimes.”

Taking a Don’t-Stress Approach

While some experts urge teachers to pay special attention to creating assignments that take children away from their computer screens, others are urging compassion and flexibility.

Erin Wilkey Oh creates online media resources for teachers at Common Sense Education, which has long studied children’s digital habits and cautioned against excessive screen time. The organization’s most recent survey, in 2019, showed that children 8 to 12 years old averaged nearly five hours a day using screens recreationally—TV, videos, gaming, social media, video chatting. Teenagers averaged more than seven hours daily. Computer-based schoolwork added only another 20 minutes for the tweens and an hour for teenagers, amounts that are surely soaring now with remote and hybrid learning.

Nonetheless, Oh urged teachers not to stress themselves out too much over screen time right now.

“We’ve never faced this before, and there are bigger concerns,” like equal access to remote instruction, Oh said. Teachers are already struggling to manage district mandates on remote instruction time, and they’re worried about students who aren’t connecting. “I’m awed by how they’re stepping up. I wouldn’t want to put more burdens on them right now,” Oh said.

Education Week asked teachers and remote learning experts for easy, low-stress ways to find a healthy balance of on-screen and off-screen time for their students. We also include a list of additional resources (even though you’ll have to go online to get them).

Remember that not all screen time is equal. Quality, not just quantity, matters. An hour online discussing Song of Solomon with a teacher and other students is not the same as an hour alone in a basement playing Mortal Kombat. Active engagement matters, too. Experts urge teachers to choose lively games or discussions rather than lecture, for instance. And in these times of isolation, screen time that lets students make good connections with their teachers and peers is important, too.

Don’t let tech blind you. Guevarez, the Hershey, Pa., teacher, said that teachers can sometimes let “the technology block our vision a little bit.” They feel surrounded by teachers trying new technologies, and think they should, too, but they forget all the things they know that don’t have to do with the new technology.

Teachers are also putting a lot of pressure on themselves to be “within reach” all day, in part because they miss their kids, said Christine Pinto, who teaches kindergarten in Arcadia, Calif.

Think learning goal first, format second. Jessica Twomey, a Long Valley, N.J., kindergarten teacher who works with Pinto to design offline activities for teachers in a project called “Innovating Play,” encourages teachers to put technology second when thinking about remote instruction. “Think first about your learning goal,” she said. “What experience do you want to provide? And then consider your options. The screen is only one option.”

Choice boards can play a new role. These grid-shaped sets of instructional activities have been around a long time; some know them as learning menus. During the pandemic, they’re getting renewed attention not only for including offline instructional ideas, but for giving students agency in a world that feels out of control. Teachers are creating and sharing their own versions on social media.

Catlin Tucker, a former teacher and the bestselling author of books on blended learning, was so concerned about heavy screen time during the coronavirus that she created free choice boards with activities designed to take elementary and middle school students off their screens and help them get active, like doing math with pieces of pasta, or drawing a comic strip based on a newspaper article. (There are wellness boards to help teachers take breaks from the screen, too.)

Carve out non-screen time, even during live sessions. Some teachers divide online classes into chunks, with time to introduce a new topic, time away from the screen to work on it, and then a regroup for questions and reflections at the end. Maria DeRosia, who teaches 5th grade in Ann Arbor, Mich., said her students are supposed to leave their Zoom on from 8:10 a.m. to 3:13 p.m. daily, but she directs them away from the screen periodically to work on assignments. She remains online, within reach if they have questions.

Remember the old-fashioned stuff. Asking kids to use pencils or pens with notebooks, work with manipulatives, or read books or articles made of paper can give them a break from their screens. Students in hybrid models can pick those materials up on in-school days, but schools doing all-remote learning would have to manage curbside pickups or driveway deliveries, which isn’t always feasible. A new whitepaper from the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood urges schools to use printed materials and handwritten homework whenever possible.

Consider listening. Audiobooks, podcasts, and recorded read-alouds are getting renewed attention as teachers try to break up their students’ pixel-gazing time. Lately, Guevarez has been using “The Imagine Neighborhood,” a story podcast designed to help students deal with emotions sparked by the pandemic. When the children are at home, they can listen while they relax on the couch or take a walk. When they’re in the classroom with her, she plays the episode through a sound projector and the kids sit quietly or color while they listen. Teachers at her elementary school also like “Tinkercast” and “Brains On!” for science, and “Forever Ago” and “The Past and the Curious” for social studies. They’ve also recorded social studies read-alouds from Joy Hakim’s A History of US.

Don’t forget the power of handwriting. Barry Frank, an English teacher and coach at Queens School of Inquiry in Flushing, N.Y., said he is having his students keep handwritten notebooks throughout the year. They’ll also be sketchnoting on paper, rather than taking notes in a Word document, during some lectures and videos. Students will submit their notes by taking pictures and sending them electronically. Frank has nothing against technology; he’s the tech coordinator for his school. “I love it, but we have to find a balance,” he said.

Harness the power of hands-on learning. Most experts said that now is a great time to use hands-on and project-based learning. Learning fractions by cooking a recipe or exploring nature and writing about it can get children off their computer screens while they master academic standards. DeRosia creates new choice boards, each with 25 activities students can choose from, every Wednesday. They always include off-screen options, such as building a catapult out of household materials. Experts said there are many projects students can do, both at home and in their communities, that can be carried out masked and socially distant, from gardening to documenting images of a COVID-19 world.

A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2020 edition of Education Week as Teacher Tips: How to Reduce Screen Time When School Is Online


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