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Toolkit: Balanced Technology Use for Students and Families

The vast amount of technology available today has made life, work, and school easier in many ways. Because of this, individuals of all ages spend excessive amounts of time using their devices, not realizing the effects that this may have on them and their families. Recognizing that technology is here to stay, the National Education Association (NEA) recommends that parents and children engage in balanced technology usage to minimize the negative effects of screen time on children.

How Are We Using Technology Today?

According to the Pew Research Center, over half of Americans have multiple connected devices in their homes. Eighty-four percent of households have at least one smartphone device, and 75 percent have three or more. Eighty percent of households have a desktop or laptop computer, and 68 percent own computer tablets. In addition, 39 percent of households have a streaming media device, such as Apple TV or Roku. Looking at the combined ownership of each type of device, 90 percent of households have at least one smartphone, desktop/laptop, tablet, or digital streaming device. (Pew Research Center, A third of Americans live in a household with three or more smartphones)

The presence of technology is increasing in schools as well. America’s public schools provide at least one computer for every five students. (Education Week, Technology in Education: An Overview) Some school districts assign students and teachers laptop computers/tablets to use at school and at home. Other districts allow teachers to take these devices home, but students only have access to school-funded computers while at school. Still, other districts only provide limited technology resources for teachers and students alike in schools. Although the numbers appear to be promising, there are often issues with access, adequacy, and equity, particularly in school districts with limited funding and schools in rural areas. (NEA Policy Brief, Technology in Schools: The Ongoing Challenge of Access, Adequacy, and Equity)

Based on reports of the numbers of devices in American homes, children who do not have much access to technology at school, do, in fact, have access at home. Data shows that 98 percent of homes with children have at least one mobile device, and 42 percent percent of children have their very own devices. Small children are spending more than 45 minutes a day on these devices and additional time in front of televisions, which 42 percent of parents say are on most of the time, even when no one is watching. When the time spent on devices and television is combined, the numbers show that children under 8 years old spend more than two hours a day utilizing technology. (NPR, Young Children Are Spending Much More Time in Front of Small Screens)

How Can Technology Negatively Affect Students?

The increasing amount of time that children spend using technology is raising concerns among various groups, including parents, educators, psychologists, and health professionals. These concerns are based on the potential negative impact that too much access to “screen time” can have on children. “Screen time” refers to the time spent engaging in activities in front of screens on technology devices, which includes, but is not limited to, watching TV, using a computer, or playing video games.

A major concern with the amount of children’s screen time is the impact it can have on their growth and development. The healthy development of a child involves brain function, movement, touch, human connection, and exposure to nature. Many children are not engaged in such activities because they are spending their playtime in front of screens. Research has determined that children who spend more time in front of screens than engaging in activities critical to healthy child development are having their creativity and imagination stifled. They are also delayed in reaching developmental milestones. In addition, they tend to have limited attention spans. (HuffPost Parenting, The Impact of Technology on the Developing Child)

Children are introduced to technology at a very young age. Many babies are using iPads and televisions for entertainment and education. Children’s use of technology is raising concerns because of the negative effects that such use can have on a child’s brain. Before recent technological advances, children’s brain development involved activities like reading books. The effects that reading books has on the brain are much different than the effects of watching videos. With videos, children do not have to imagine what is happening in a story; everything is presented to them visually. As a result, some of the brain functions that would be utilized during reading do not fully develop. The frontal lobe also suffers from underdevelopment when children spend more time in front of screens than they do interacting socially with others. This makes it difficult to develop empathy and learn social cues. (NBC News, What screen time does to a child’s brain)

Two areas critical to child development are hearing and speech. Audiologists believe that using devices at loud volumes damages children’s hearing and speech-language pathologists believe that the overuse of devices is limiting human interaction and conversation. According to a poll conducted by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the majority of communication experts envision the overuse of technology causing irreparable “damage to communication skills for generations to come” due to a lack of social interaction. (The Philadelphia Inquirer, Is technology impacting my child’s social and communications skills?)

Research has shown that the more time children spend in front of screens, the less time they spend interacting with family members and friends, which may weaken their social skills and their bond with parents. In addition, because children are usually sedentary during screen time, they participate in fewer physical activities that promote healthy habits and healthy weight. Screen time also exposes children to information and sites of which their parents may not approve and could potentially be unsafe for them. (ScreenGuide, 5 negative impacts of technology in children)

Research shows that more than 72 percent of children have at least one technology device in their bedroom. The Journal of the American Medical Association has found that there is a correlation between the overuse of mobile devices and a reduction in sleep quality. Using devices near bedtime can reduce the number of hours of sleep, which leads to daytime sleepiness. When children sleep less, their brains do not complete many of the functions that it normally completes during sleep. This can have a negative impact on a child’s performance the next day. (ScreenGuide, 5 negative impacts of technology in children)

Just as the amount of screen time utilized by young children has increased, it has also increased for teens. One study indicates that 13- to 18-year-olds spend an average of six hours a day on screen-based activities, mostly on smartphones and/or tablets. Most teens use their technology devices to

network socially, share and obtain information, participate in interest groups, play games, and study. Significantly, the more screen time teens enjoy, the greater the chance that they experience cyberbullying, trolling, isolation, and becoming involved in inappropriate relationships. (ReachOut.com, Technology and Teenagers)

Teens recognize that they may be spending too much time with their devices. They are also cognizant of the impact that excessive screen time has on them. When asked how they feel without their cell phones, teens mentioned feeling lonely, upset, or anxious. Fifty percent of teens confess that they feel addicted to their devices, and 77 percent of parents believe that devices are a distraction for teens. Interestingly, 27 percent of parents feel addicted to their own devices, and 41 percent of teens believe that devices distract their parents. These numbers reveal that both parents and teens recognize that excessive screen time is an issue for them. (Washington Post, Teens say they’re addicted to technology. Here’s how parents can help.)

The Pew Research Center reported that 72 percent of teens and 57 percent of parents check their cell phones as soon as they wake up. Although parents are less likely to check their phones when they wake up, they do report a significant number of device distractions when they are away from home. Both groups admit that they lose focus at work or in class because they are checking their cell phones. (Pew Research Center, How Teens and Parents Navigate Screen Time and Device Distractions)

How Do We Create Balance?

To minimize the negative effects that screen time can have on children, teens, adults, and families, researchers recommend practicing balanced technology usage. The Michigan State University Extension program encourages parents to conduct an evaluation of the behavior they are modeling as it relates to their own use of technology by reviewing when, where, how, and why they engage in screen time to develop heathier technology usage patterns for themselves. Once they complete this evaluation, parents should help their children and teens develop healthy patterns of screen time. They can do this by creating more opportunities for face-to-face socialization, identifying spaces and times—such as in the car or at the dinner table—where the family cannot engage with devices, and setting screen time limits. (Michigan State University, Strategies for using digital technology in healthy ways)

The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages families to create screen time guidelines for parents and children. The organization shares specific recommendations for technology usage with infants and young children, including turning off devices when not in use, avoiding the use of devices to calm children, and not engaging in screen time an hour before bed because it limits the number of hours children sleep. (American Academy of Pediatrics, Media and Young Minds: Council on Communications and Media)

Utilizing recommended strategies to balance technology usage for teens is not as simple as balancing it for younger children. Most teens have their digital devices with them at school and at other times when their parents are not around to monitor use. This gives them much more time to use the devices and increases the possibilities of exposure to unhealthy, negative, and dangerous sites, programs, and information. To counter this, it is important for parents to talk with their teens about what sites and the type of content they are not allowed to view.

Parents can and should make themselves aware of their children’s screen time activities and research the sites they visit. Parents can also monitor and restrict teens’ access to certain content. With 87 percent of teens reporting that they have witnessed some form of cyberbullying, it is also important for parents to talk to teens about their digital interactions and the importance of being respectful to others both face-to-face and when using technology. (American Psychological Association, Digital Guidelines: Promoting Healthy Technology Use for Children)

The American Psychological Association has compiled seven strategies that can be useful in balancing technology usage among adults. These strategies include the following: not using phones while driving to lessen the chance of an accident occurring; refraining from using phones in bed to promote more peaceful sleep; disabling notifications to reduce distractions; and taking time away from devices to relax and reflect. (American Psychological Association, Connected and Content: Managing Healthy Technology Use)

Within the last two decades, technology has become a mainstay in our society. It has provided people with multiple ways of managing their lives, obtaining information quickly, and staying connected to the people and things that are important to them. The majority of American homes and schools have some form of technology, ranging from televisions, to computers and tablets, to handheld telephone devices. The number of individuals across all age groups incorporating technology into their daily lives is rising rapidly. Technology is good and important. Balanced use of technology at all ages is imperative.

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