By Margaret Merga
Australian schools have some of the world’s lowest levels of restrictions on screen time. (AAP: Paul Miller)
Technology has delivered innovative tools which can offer significant opportunities for learning.
However screen time comes with potential risks for young people.
Australian students spend more time online than the OECD average, and our students’ screen use is growing over time.
Tech-savvy or screen dependent?
Internet and computer technology is a key part of the Australian curriculum, and we want our students to be tech-savvy.
One might expect that heavy investment in internet and computer technology in schools would yield notable educational benefits, however the most sizeable international research in this area suggests that the countries who have invested the most have seen no appreciable improvements in reading, mathematics or science achievement.
Many parents assume that Australian schools regulate their students’ screen time.
But the reality is that Australian schools have some of the lowest levels of restrictions on screen time in the world.
As students increase their screen use at school, this has also led to increases in screen time at home for educational purposes.
Therefore, burgeoning screen time at school can have a flow on affect that must be understood.
In addition, device use in schools may not always be educative, with devices used to go off-task.
Screen time guidelines need updating
While the World Health Organisation proposes screen time limits for children under five, limits on older children are less clear cut.
While Australian limits suggest that children aged five-to-17 should restrict sedentary recreational screen time to under two hours per day, this doesn’t include screen time for educational purposes.
However, without limits, it is entirely possible for students to be on their devices at school almost all day, including break time.
We need new screen limits for children that will allow them to make the most of educative opportunities reliant on devices, while also providing protection from health risks, and promoting literacy learning.
Therefore, firstly we need to be on the same page, with a workable and all-encompassing research-supported screen limit.
And who should act as the screen time police?
Adults must be confident in applying screen limits on their children. (ABC News: Will Ockenden )
Secondly, once we have a limit, we need to agree on who will enforce it, and how this can be achieved.
I believe that parents, schools and students all play a key role in this regard.
Where parents show confidence in applying limits for their children, limits are more likely to be successful.
They should also model the self-regulating screen practices that they expect their children to have.
Schools who have heavily invested in internet and computer technology resources at the expense of the staffing and resourcing of their libraries may wish to re-consider this position, particularly in light of the literacy benefits associated with libraries.
They could consider applying limits to students’ screen time at school, and be more strategic about getting optimal educative benefit out of screen time at schools.
For example, where schools have moved away from online textbooks, this has been responsive to desires to enhance reading comprehension and reduce student distraction.
Finally, students need to be taught the benefits of screen-free time, and be encouraged to invest in their own well-being and learning from an early age.
We need to teach them that self-regulation is key, but we potentially undermine this message when schools require children to spend long hours on devices for educative purposes.
Paper-based reading offers better literacy benefits, including comprehension. (Flickr: Richard Leeming)
But why does this matter?
Recent research suggests that screen time may already be having a detrimental impact on student learning, and literacy learning in particular.
This is not surprising, as the time we spend reading on screens does not offer the same literacy benefits as paper-based reading, which is better for reading comprehension.
We also know that access to devices can have a negative impact on students’ engagement in literacy-supportive activities, such as book reading.
The more devices a children has access to, the less likely they may be to read for pleasure.
Screen time can supplant quality reading time, and some schools are already attempting to address sliding rates of reading engagement by adopting innovative programs.
For example, some schools have implemented a whole-school, research-supported silent reading program.
However, more needs to be done to ensure the benefits of reading for enjoyment are not lost to screen time.
While the contribution of screen time to falling literacy rates is part of an issue with complex causation, limiting screen time could play an important role in addressing stagnating literacy scores.
Health and wellbeing suffers
While impacts on literacy warrant attention, there also needs to be greater awareness of the potential risks to students’ health and wellbeing that can arise from excessive screen use.
Risks are numerous and include, but are not limited to cardiometabolic syndrome, obesity, spinal and postural health issues, Computer Vision Syndrome, sleep disorders, internet addiction, cyberbullying, and diminished perceived self-efficacy for physical activity.
Some of these reasons were mentioned in the recent decision by the government to ban mobile phone use in Western Australian public schools.
Recent research has also explored the link between screen time and diminished mental health and well-being in young people.
US research found that teens with higher screen time may be less happy than peers who spend less time on screens.
Margaret Merga is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Edith Cowan University.