In defense of screen time

The Silicon Valley engineers who design our tech gadgets won’t let their kids anywhere near those devices, according to a shocking New York Times profile. These workers are convinced too much time in front of smartphones and iPads is rotting kids’ brains. Technology “is wreaking havoc on our children,” warned one former Facebook employee.

These parents need to relax. It’s true that allowing kids to browse social media until the wee hours of the morning isn’t a good idea. But it’s also true that smart phones, iPads and other gadgets are powerful educational tools, both at home and in the classroom.

Rather than demonize and ban all devices, parents should regulate screen time and ensure their children use technology in beneficial ways.

Despite the parental panic in Silicon Valley and well-educated communities nationwide, research suggests that screen time can be a net positive for children. Kids whose parents drastically limit screen time ultimately perform worse in college, according to a Swiss study of American universities.

And thanks to their immediate feedback and multimedia features, iPads are great reading tools. Compared to kids who only use books, kids who learn to read on iPads are more engaged, cooperative and willing to speak up, according to a researcher from the Institute of Education in London. Kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds who read on both books and iPads at home are more likely to perform at or above grade level in school.

It’s not the screen itself that’s good or bad — but what’s on it.

These studies show that it’s not the screen itself that’s good or bad — but what’s on it. Watching two hours of Cartoon Network is much different than watching a National Geographic documentary. Parents simply need to create straightforward rules for their kids. Regulating non-educational screen time or having a social media curfew are both good options.

At school, educators can use tech gadgets and apps to speed up the learning process while tailoring their lessons to support each student.

Consider DreamBox, a platform that allows elementary and middle schoolers to play different math games on their iPads. The tech tool mines more than 48,000 data points per student every hour to personalize lessons for individual users. Algebra Nation, a similar program, studies click-patterns to figure out when students are struggling and offer personalized advice.

Such “adaptive learning” platforms are already yielding impressive results in higher education. An adaptive learning tool at the Colorado Technical University increased a course’s pass rate by 27 percent and its final grade average by 10 percent.

Classroom tech also gives teachers a superhuman capacity to pinpoint and predict problems. For example, a school in Spokane, Wash. gives its students online surveys to track how focused they feel, how inclusive their social environment is and how often they feel like giving up, among other things. Educators then study this data via dashboards to understand where kids might need help, both inside and outside the classroom.

A decade ago, it would have been unrealistic to expect school faculty to track the day-to-day thoughts, feelings and engagement of each and every student — despite this being invaluable information for educators. With classroom tech, such practices can and should become standard.

No reasonable person thinks it’s good for kids to be glued to their screens 24/7 or to replace human interaction with an app. But the notion that screen time is intrinsically harmful for children is equally silly. It’s time for teachers and parents to stop the fear mongering and harness the latest technology to offer kids a world-class education.

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