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Standing up to children’s screen time requires parents address their own

When Harvard Medical School psychologist Richard Bromfield emailed me about his new book on kids and screens, I asked him to write an op-ed around the issue. I requested he speak to the challenge of classrooms full of children with access to the world -- or at least the world wide web -- in their pockets. 

Bromfield’s book, “Standing Up to Screens: A Doable Plan for Parents United,” helps parents manage their children’s use of screens and develop a more balanced screen life. “My clinical experience has shown me that parents know the problem well and know what they need to do. But it is just too hard to singlehandedly confront their children’s screens, not to mention give up their own,” he explained in an email.

He begins his book with a telling quote from James Baldwin: “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” 

Bromfield notes parents use their own screens nine hours or more a day, more than most children or teens. Half talk on their phones while driving with their young children. A third text, and about 16 percent check their social media. 

"Yet despite these facts, 78 percent of parents judge themselves to be ‘good media role models’ for their children’s use of screens," he writes in a chapter titled "Fess up."

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Bromfield is not prescribing a ban on devices; he wants parents to limit and manage their children’s time and show their kids how to benefit from all these emerging technologies. With that background, here is his guest column.

By Richard Bromfield

Twenty years ago, I wrote a book for teachers that explored topics like personal expression and feelings in the classroom, suicidality, diversity, crisis, and the like. Teachers told me my purview was mistaken. A teacher’s role is not to be a therapist or a social worker. A teacher, they explained, is there to teach.  

And they were right. (The book went out of print.) 

Yet, things have changed over the past 20 years. Teachers everywhere have taken on matters as critical and substantial as equity, social-emotional development, English as a second language, and more. The remarkably difficult job of teacher has only grown more difficult.  

If that wasn’t all enough, somewhere along the way computers happened. Children now could sit at their Apple IIs and Macintoshes in the back of their classrooms or in dedicated computer labs. Educational software allowed these students to retrace the explorations of Lewis and Clark, practice operational math by guiding a lost submarine to safety and rehearse reading skills through the adventures of a rabbit. Educators and software engineers collaborated on creative games that captivated children and made learning fun.  

With computers and printers in the school, children learned how to word process, even printing their own illustrated books and classroom newspapers. And with the World Wide Web at their service, children quickly learned how to search the Internet for just about anything they might want or need to know. 

To kids and grownups alike, all this new technology seemed amazing, almost magical. There was seemingly no end to the wondrous possibilities that computers and the Internet offered for education and students.  

But over time, the pristine veneer started to show cracks. 

Students learned how to use their independent computer time as unproductively and distractedly as any other school activity. When conducting academic research on the Internet, they roamed to places more exciting and less educational than their teachers would have wanted. Of no surprise, they quickly learned how to exploit the resources of the Web. For older students, plagiarism grew rampant as they discovered how easily one can copy and paste.  

And then in 2007, 30 years after the Apple II, Apple released the first iPhone. Students could now carry in a pocket a miniature computer more powerful than the entire computer labs used to be. And they could use them constantly. 

As someone who’s done some teaching, I know what it’s like to look on a small sea of open MacBooks. Once – as an experiment, and ensuring my students there’d be no repercussions for candor – I asked how many of them were doing things unrelated to the seminar. Every one of them admitted there were times they worked on other classes, communicated with friends and family, even browsed and shopped. (And I’m speaking of adult learners who paid huge tuitions for graduate school and who liked the class.) 

What must it be like, we have to wonder, for dedicated educators who work their hardest to help our children learn and get ready for life? What must it be like to see students sneaking peeks at their phones during class? I suspect there are many kids who don’t even try to hide it anymore. True enough, I’m sure that teachers feel resentful, offended, and blown-off by these students and their behaviors. But I don’t believe that’s what troubles today’s educators the most.  

Teachers in the United States are underpaid, overworked, and unfairly criticized. They become teachers because they care, deeply, about their students. They work to reach every student. They understand the hard knocks of the world that await these children when they graduate. They know the benefits of being educated and prepared, just as they know the less-fortunate futures that are likely for those students who are undereducated and unprepared. 

These educators lament not only the distractions of technology that rob from the day’s lessons, but also the ways that mobile phones and screens can hijack a child’s investment in education (think homework and study and reading not done), and how it steals away all sorts of experiences (social, physical, emotional) that children need to have healthy, happy selves and lives. 

It’s easy to understand why people get frustrated. Parents can find themselves pointing their finger at schools, demanding that they figure out ways to get kids to put away their electronics long enough to learn. And teachers can find themselves critical of the parents who, they may judge, indulge or otherwise contribute to the screen problem when the kids go home.  

In truth, I suspect some kids would have a different take on the issue. Surveys suggest that many teens report less happiness and contentment, and greater depression and anxiety, worrisome data that corresponds to the explosion of mobile phones and social media. I know many kids who would be quick to tell both parents and teachers not to rebuke themselves. It’s a larger thing, they understand, that interacts with society, culture, and the world. We are all equal victims to a technology that’s appealing, powerful, and seductive, charms that didn’t get into those devices and software innocently or by error.  

What are the solutions? There are many of them. Anything, at home or school, that helps children get off their screens some, if not a lot. Anything, at home and school, that helps children make better use of the remaining screen time. Anything, at home and school, that helps to engage kids in non-screen experiences and activities. (And, of course, anything that helps the grownups get a check on their own use of screens and technology.)

Although the possibilities are endless and beyond a short article, I can assure you of one basic truth. Parents, teachers, and kids are not to blame for the problem. But if (and only if) they work together, they can fix it

 

About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.

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