By Natasha Singer, The New York Times, 18 April 2018
(Photo): Church Lane Elementary Technology School, a public school in Baltimore County, Md. Maryland could become the first state to address parents’ concerns about extensive computer screen time in schools.CreditMatt Roth for The New York Times
The bill throws Maryland into an already heated national debate over the potential for digital devices and apps to addict children — and whether it is up to the tech industry or parents to make sure children don’t get hooked.
Until now, health concerns about children’s use of devices have centered largely on entertainment activities. Studies have reported that children with excessive internet or video-gaming habits can become preoccupied with online activities to the detriment of real-life activities and relationships.
Mindful of such risks, a group of Apple shareholders recently wrote the company a letter that warned of the iPhone’s potential for overuse and that pressed Apple to develop tools for parents to better manage their children’s device habits.
Some pediatricians and parents are now raising similar concerns about classroom laptops, tablets and apps, partly because school districts are adopting digital tools in droves. Last year, primary and secondary schools in the United States spent $5.4 billion on 12.4 million laptop and tablet computers, according to International Data Corporation, a market research firm known as IDC.
Several pediatricians warned that heavy digital device use in schools or for homework could have unintended physical and emotional consequences for students, including vision problems, interrupted sleep and device compulsion. In particular, they noted that some classroom learning apps used powerful, video-game-like reward systems to engage and stimulate students, making it difficult for some children to turn them off.
“The concern is that many programs students use in school are entertainment and gamified,” said Dr. Scott Krugman, a pediatrician in Baltimore County who supported the school device bill. “We felt these are things that should be tracked and monitored.”
So far, however, there is little concrete evidence on the potential health effects of digital learning tools for students.
Many schools are more focused on tapping the potential for digital tools to enrich children’s education — by helping them collaborate, create projects and research online — than on tracking the effects of screen time on students. And video-game-like math education apps may benefit some children even if the apps create problematic habits for other children, said Dr. David L. Hill, a pediatrician in Wilmington, N.C., who is the chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ council on communications and media.
The doctors’ group has published guidelines on entertainment media, recommending among other things that children avoid exposure to digital screens at least an hour before bed. But Dr. Hill said the group had decided against issuing recommendations on the use of devices in classrooms because of the lack of school-specific research.
“As a doctor, my answer is always to get the data,” Dr. Hill said. “Right now, we have anecdotes.”
The Maryland bill aims to provide some answers. The legislation would require the state’s Department of Education, in conjunction with its Health Department, to develop best practices for the healthy and safe use of digital devices in schools, optional models that schools in the state can choose to follow.
Some school districts are already developing their own recommendations.
Baltimore County Public Schools, the nation’s 25th-largest school system, has a health council made up of doctors and other experts who give guidance on classroom technology. The group has recommended minimal screen time before children enter kindergarten and, for high school students, that computer use take up no more than half of learning time during the school day.
It also recommended that students take activity breaks from computer tasks every 20 minutes and leave their devices inside during recess.
School screen time guidelines like these could spread. Inspired by the Maryland effort, Parents Across America, a nonprofit public school advocacy group, has drafted letters for parents in other states to send to their legislators.
“It could be model legislation for the rest of the United States,” said Laura Bowman, a board member of the parents’ group.