One of the most noticeable recent technological changes in our homes and schools is the proliferation of screens. Televisions have given way to computers, tablets, and phones, all of which serve significant functions in our lives. The abundance of these devices has caused widespread concern, particularly about youth, who seem as entranced by screens as the rest of us are. At the same time, schools are rapidly adopting technology-rich environments and one-to-one laptop and tablet programs, in which each student is given a device for use in school, and older students are often allowed to bring them home as well. These schools are responding to a felt need for students to develop technology skills, but the result is that students now often have access to laptops, tablets, or mobile phones for much of their school day in addition to their already screen-heavy leisure time. Should we be concerned? In what ways might school use of these devices exacerbate or alleviate a serious problem?
In a multi-year research project, my colleagues and I approached these questions by surveying parents, students, and teachers in a private Christian school system with a mature one-to-one laptop and tablet program and by observing how these devices were used in the classroom through numerous randomly timed observations. We found that the total amount of time that these students spent using laptops, tablets, and phones was high, and yet we did not observe any strong reason to be concerned that students’ in-school screen time was in itself creating problems with excessive screen use. While digital devices can create some problems for young people, the raw quantity of time in front of these screens in a school setting does not seem to be the primary harm we should worry about. What led us to this conclusion?
The Problems Associated with Screens in School
To understand what we found, let’s start with the best academic evidence regarding screen time for young people. A wealth of research indicates that excessive screen time in young people can have negative consequences but that these consequences seem to be mostly indirect. We do not have strong evidence that the raw time in front of a screen is harmful; instead it appears that these technologies reliably and systematically replace more healthy activities with less healthy ones. For example, strong evidence suggests that children who spend significant amounts of time using these devices might not get enough sleep or exercise (see Hale and Guan; Laurson et al.; Mark and Janssen). The most powerful hypothesis behind this is that young people lean too heavily on electronic media for entertainment—video games, videos, social media, and movies—and that this reduces time for healthy behaviors. To the extent that electronic media and applications are designed to distract us and grant immediate satisfaction, we can think of these devices as “training” young people in unhealthy habits. It is not surprising, then, that the guidelines published by the American Academy of Pediatrics focus on these health behaviors and do not place any limits on the use of these technologies for academic purposes (Council on Communications).
Steven McMullen is an associate professor of economics at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He is also the editor of Faith & Economics and a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. His research in economics focuses on education policy, as well as ethical and theological topics. His writing can be found at stevenmcmullen.com, and you can follow his work at https://www.facebook.com/StevenCMcMullen.