“Screen Time” for Elementary Students

I recently attended a seminar entitled “Screens: Success or Sabotage for Schools? A Discussion of Children, Screens, and Learning Confirmation” hosted by our local CESA (Cooperative Educational Service Agency). The speaker, Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, MPH, MSLIS, MD, is affiliated with UW Madison, Department of Pediatrics, and UW School of Medicine & Public Health.

As a Literacy Coach for grades 4K – 5, I was excited to engage in a conversation about Screen Usage and learning for our littlest learners, especially in this time of remote “virtual” learning and a Covid-19 world.

I went in with my educator hat on, expected a deep conversation about tablets, apps, and digital learning, but I was surprised to find that I was wearing my parenting hat more often through the conversation. I do believe the presentation was geared toward ages 0-5, and yet I had several important takeaways that will impact how I view digital learning in the school environment.

Perhaps my most important takeaway was learning about the Orienting Response, a term coined by Ivan Pavlov in the 1920s. In short, OR is a human reflex or response to changes in the environment. For example, if the door to your room suddenly opened, you would engage in OR and be compelled to look. Our youngest children, ages 0-24, may seem like they are enjoying watching digital media, but they are likely in a stunned state of Orienting Response, reacting to rapid changes that compel them to look, but make little sense and do nothing to advance their growth or development.

Other takeaways I made that will impact my work coaching elementary literacy are understanding why digital media is more appropriate in later elementary grades (3-4-5) than early elementary (K-1-2), and a better understanding of appropriate content for young learners – slow pacing, modeling human thoughts and conversation, encouraging language development, and helping children make sense of the world around us.

Research-based findings and historical data:

Dr. Navsaria shared several important statistics to help contextualize screen media use by age, demographic, purpose, and other metrics. I learned the following (based on 2011-2017 data):

  • What kinds of screens? Children (ages 0-8) are using mobile devices more than TV / DVD.
  • What are children doing online? In order of prevalence: Watching videos / Youtube, Playing games, Using apps, Watching TV/movies, Reading books.
  • Why are devices being used during parent/child time? In short, to occupy children or parents (2013 data). In order of prevalence devices are being used…while parents/children are running errands together, while parent is doing chores, to occupy parent while child plays, to occupy child when parent is at a meeting, class, or other activity.
  • Parents care. Lower income families have higher screen media usage, however all parents (across racial and economic demographics) strongly agree that time should be limited/lowered.

Common Concerns about Screen Time and small children:

  • Is screen time bad for the eyes? Research doesn’t really support that screen usage damages eyes. Sorry! Personally, I do notice that children don’t blink as much while on screens, so there might be a drying effect, but no long term damage like our parents always warned us about.
  • Is screen time detrimental to development? Screen time displaces both creative play and sleep. It interferes with human interaction (this includes co-viewing – even when parent and child are viewing the media together, they aren’t necessarily interacting). Remember that interactions are what drive development. Screen usage, even when just on in the background, results in decreased child-directed language.
  • Does screen time cause ADD/ADHD? In ages 0-3, excessive screen time can raise the risk of inattention later in life. The good news? This affect can be counteracted by quality cognitive stimulation. The key factor is the content of the screen time programming. Consider the following 3 general categories of content: “Educational” content (good) “Entertainment” content (neutral), and “Violent” (negative). Also consider the pacing of the program (ex: rapid scene changes, flashes). Programs like Mr. Rogers that are slow, long scenes, and show conversation and human interaction are considered a gold standard as both educational and slow paced. Programs like Power Rangers with violence and rapid paced scene changes are worth avoiding.

But aren’t some programs “good” for kids?

  • The term “educational” isn’t protected. Anyone can create a product and call it educational or enriching. There are no metrics for this. Prime example: Baby Einstein.
  • Some programs (e.g. Sesame Street) have benefits: improved social skills, school readiness. The program structure allows for flexibility and repetition, which leads to increased attention. BUT keep in mind that it’s aimed at the average 4-year-old. Young children (under 18-30 months) learn better from live persons than from video. Not sure why, but that is what research shows. After 18-30 months, children start to pay more attention to screens and the language.

What about e-readers and e-books?

  • Print is print, regardless of how you consume it. HOWEVER… there are a few things to consider when selecting high-quality e-books for children. Dr. Navsaria encourages making sure the books have high-quality illustrations. He also cautions against e-books with many “enhancements”, or embedded multimodal elements, which can distract from comprehension (e.g. embedded videos, definitions, captions, pop-ups, etc.).

So should we try to discourage screen time with children under 8 years old?

In short…. No. This is a losing battle. There will always be a need for digital media and screen time. Instead of discouraging use, encourage selecting appropriate high-quality content (educational, non violent, slow-paced, conversational, purposeful) and co-viewing – view the media with your child and discuss it with them, during or after, to enhance cognitive development. Encourage conversation and child-led language opportunities. Incorporate what you learn from media into child-led play time and interactions. Help your child make sense of their world.

Final recommendations from Dr. Navrasia and the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics):

Avoid screen time before 18-24 months of age. Ages 2-5, limit to 1 hour daily. Keep some environments screen free (bedtime, mealtimes, playtimes) and avoid screens 1 hour before bed.


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