When school is online, how much screen time is too much?

Michael RichMichael Rich, MD, MPH, is Boston Children’s Hospital’s media expert and director of Boston Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Send him a media-related parenting question via cmch@childrens.harvard.edu and follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston.

Q: I teach for an online school that serves students in 4th through 12th grades. All of our lesson content is web-based, and the school would like to add three hours of synchronous lesson delivery four days a week. I believe that the school is trying to satisfy the parent desire for face-to-face contact between students and teachers—in this scenario, students can ask questions in real time and get their answers right away. Personally, I think that it is too much screen time for the students. All of the data I see indicates that screen-time does not count when it is for educational purposes, but that does not seem quite right to me. What are your thoughts on online education and how much time a student in an online school should spend using screens?

Skeptical about Screen Time, in Alberta, Canada

A: Dear Skeptical,

Screen time is a rapidly changing concept, and it can be difficult to define. People mostly agree that watching TV counts, but what about texting your friends? Video chatting with grandma? What about watching zebras migrating across Africa on YouTube, or playing a game that helps you learn to recognize words? Do all of those activities constitute “screen time”? And if educational content does not count as screen time, how do we determine what is educational and what is not? Indeed, all media are educational in the sense that children learn from them, but are they learning what you want them to learn? There are important distinctions to make between using screens to achieve clear learning goals (as curriculum developers and educators do) and using media that are marketed as “educational” with no particular goals in mind.

Computer_smile_girlBecause screens surround us, from Diamond Vision at the stadium to flat screens at gas pumps and in elevators to the screened devices in our pockets, because we use different screens for different needs, and because the content they convey varies so widely, it may no longer be useful to treat screen time as a single entity. Instead of focusing on how many hours each day students are spending with screens, it may be most effective to focus on using those screens mindfully, as tools to accomplish goals that can be accomplished better with a screen than with any other tool.

Applying these principles to your situation, first clarify the educational goals your school is trying to achieve by adding these hours of synchronous learning and what parents are hoping their children will get from “face-to-face” contact. (Remember, video chatting or conferencing is more interactive than online lectures and can be quite valuable, depending on what you’re trying to achieve.) If parents are hoping that children will have more time socializing, perhaps brainstorm with the curriculum developers about providing parents with ways to integrate ‘real-world’ learning with the online curriculum.

Remember, children of all ages need a varied and diverse experience diet, so that they are optimizing their learning time, then moving on to something new and fresh to explore. There is no inherent problem with using screens for learning—but being mindful about why you’re using them is important, as well as paying attention to whether they are displacing activities, such as physical exercise or socialization, that are not as well served by the screen environment.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®