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Helping Students, Teachers, and Parents Make Sense of the Screen Time Debate

By Ian O'Byrne
 | Aug 03, 2018
Screentime DebateNearly a cliché after two decades of development, it is clear that the internet has profoundly changed the ways in which we read, write, communicate, and learn. Given these sweeping changes, one significant conversation centers on the use of internet-enabled devices as they relate to school policy, teaching practices, and the well-being of children. Current conversations about screen time often reduce the discussion to a simplistic debate: How much time should youth spend on devices? Although many scholars argue that web-based inquiry, multimodal creation, and communication of ideas in web-based environments support the development of fundamental skills of digital literacy, conversations about screen time in education, medicine, and mass media focus predominantly on the time youth spend on devices. These discussions overlook fundamentally important questions about what youth are learning by using digital devices, with whom, and for what purposes.

Although research over the last two decades has shown that reading and writing in digital spaces requires complex skills, literacy development is often not addressed in conversations about screen time. Instead, articles focus on the damage that screens may cause to developing brains. For example, in a Psychology Today article, Victoria Dunckley opens with the claim, “Addiction aside, a much broader concern that begs awareness is the risk that screen time is creating subtle damage even in children with ‘regular’ exposure, considering that the average child clocks in more than seven hours a day.” This article cites information from the Kaiser Family Foundation's 2010 report. Although all the data she presents are from studies of internet- and video game-addicted youth, she encourages parents to “arm yourself with the truth about the potential damage screen time is capable of imparting—particularly in a young, still-developing brain.”

Making sense of the debate

To address these concerns, a nonprofit organization, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development helped prepare a special report for the Pediatrics journal. The supplement is the result of a collaboration of more than 130 recognized experts in the field from a diverse background of disciplines, institutions and perspectives organized into 22 workgroups. Research spanning the fields of psychiatry, psychology, neuroscience, pediatrics, sociology, anthropology, communications, education, law, public health, and public policy informed this work. You can read more about the key findings and takeaways, as well as frequently asked questions here.

As part of this supplement, I worked with Kristen Turner, Tessa Jolls, Michelle Hagerman, Troy Hicks, Bobbie Eisenstock, and Kristine Pytash on a piece titled “Developing Digital and Media Literacies in Children and Adolescents.” In our article, we talk about the tension that exists as digital and media literacy are essential to participation in society. We make recommendations for research and policy priorities as we ask questions about the ability of individuals to have access to information at their fingertips at all times. Specifically, we ask, What specific competencies must young citizens acquirein this global culture and economy? We examine how these competencies might influence pedagogy. Additionally, we consider how student knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors may have changed. Finally, we present guidance on the best ways to assess students’ digital and media literacy.

We believe these questions underscore what parents, educators, health professionals, and community leaders need to know to ensure that youth become digitally and media literate. Experimental and pilot programs in the digital and media literacy fields are yielding insights, but gaps in understanding and lack of support for research and development continue to impede growth in these areas. Learning environments no longer depend on seat time in factory-like school settings. Learning happens anywhere, anytime, and productivity in the workplace depends on digital and media literacy. To create the human capital necessary for success and sustainability in a technology-driven world, we must invest in the literacy practices of our youth.

Problematizing our own practices

Soon after our article was released in the Pediatrics supplement, many of the authors began to examine our own relationships and practices as they relate to the topic of screen time. We examined this from our roles as educator, as researcher, as parent, as friend, and as neighbor. Those who are parents considered the role of screen time in our relationships with our children. We considered the times we were asked by family members questions about how much screen time is safe for children. We considered the times we questioned whether or not time spent coding online counted as screen time, and whether it more “valuable” than simply watching YouTube videos. We considered the times we were asked by family and friends about the appropriate age for children to own their first mobile device. Across all the questions, in all of these contexts, we were left dumbfounded. As the “experts” in these spaces, we knew what the research suggested, but many times it looked different in our own practices and relationships.

These questions and inconsistencies led a group of scholars to begin reaching out to other educators, researchers, developers, and parents to see if they also had many of the same questions and concerns that we did. They promptly indicated that they too had the same struggles and recognized that there was little to no comprehensive research on the topic.

There seemed to be a lot of hysteria from various news and media sources as parents and educators were left afraid about the overall impact of screens on youth. Finally, there was little to no discussion happening across different spaces to allow people to ask questions, have discussions with experts in the field, and inform their practices.

Make your voice heard

Together with Kristin Turner, I have started a research project, titled “Beyond the ‘Screentime’ Debate: Developing Digital and Media Literacies with Youth and Teens,” This project builds on work done by the Digital and Media Literacies workgroup of the Children and Screens Institute to address these challenges and create a discussion space to unite the varied perspectives that are impacted by these questions. This research project seeks to explore and redefine the definition of screen time, to connect it with digital literacy skills and dispositions, and to explore complex, dynamic, creative digital learning as antidote to the atrophy we all fear.

Our main focus in this research project is to create dialogue across spaces to help examine and unpack the questions in this debate. We want to know you define screen time and what it looks like in your lives. We want to know more about some of the challenges and opportunities you face with the use of screens. Finally, we would like to know about any tips, tricks, or habits you utilize in relation to screens in your role as an educator, parent, employee, or human being. This research project refocuses the screen time debate by asking: What digital and media competencies must young citizens acquire? How do these competencies affect school policy and pedagogy? How are students’ knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors transformed by engaging with various forms of media?

Anyone can get involved in this research project by joining the open public forums on our website. We’re using FlipGrid for this open research project, and you can go directly to the topics at flipgrid.com/screentime. The password to get in and get involved is “Screentime.” The topics and questions on FlipGrid are the same ones that are on our website. Our goal is to provide a space for all individuals to discuss the future of our youth, and the role of screen time in those futures. We look forward to having you join this screen time discussion.

Ian O’Byrne is an educator, researcher, innovator, and activist. His research investigates the literacy practices of individuals in online and hybrid spaces. Ian’s work can be found on his website. His weekly newsletter focuses on the intersections between technology, education, and literacy. Ian is an assistant professor of literacy education at the College of Charleston.

This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

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