Screen addiction: today’s biggest threat to schooling?

January 10th, 2019

By Eva Moskowitz Influencer

The distractions of the digital era are upon us: Most American tweens and teenagers now have access to mobile devices and they spend an average of nine hours per day on entertainment media. This development has enormous implications for schooling. Educating children at a very high level is hard even in the best of conditions, particularly when they bear the burden and stresses of poverty. Addiction to screens makes this job even harder; indeed, as a leader of a large charter school network that serves many low-income children, at times I find it to be an even more pernicious obstacle than poverty itself.

To become educated to the level they need for college success, students must be well-rested and focused during the school day. Precious hours after school and on weekends must also be well-spent. Much of high school learning takes place through homework, independent reading, and extracurricular experiences like clubs, sports teams, volunteering, and interning. When kids have on-demand access to 24-hour entertainment without even leaving their beds, however, their motivation to engage in more valuable activities plummets.

We watch this phenomenon playing out every day at Success Academy. Our kids submit their assignments online and we can see that many high schoolers, and even middle schoolers, are completing and handing in their homework at 2 or 3 in the morning. When probed about the late hour, they admit they were spending the evening hours texting or on Instagram or Netflix. Scholars who were passionate readers in elementary school have lost interest as teenagers, thanks to the unyielding grip of “apps” that have been ingeniously designed to grab and hold the attention of even the most self-disciplined adults.

Social-emotional learning also suffers. When kids socialize online, they miss opportunities to practice essential speaking, communication, and conflict resolution skills. Ensconced safely behind their devices, they are more likely to engage in bullying behavior that tends to be more constrained in real-world interactions. In the old days, a bloody nose was concrete evidence of a conflict that needed solving. Today, school staff are forced to become cyber security sleuths, monitoring and investigating seemingly endless incidents of online bullying.

These developments are even more concerning when placed in the context of the vast inequities between rich and poor children that continue to plague our nation. A recent New York Times article chronicled a growing awareness among affluent parents about the adverse effects of excessive screen time. In wealthy enclaves like Silicon Valley, parents are flocking to “tech-free” private schools, restricting their kids’ device usage, or prohibiting it altogether.

Meanwhile, poor and middle-income parents aren’t getting the message. On average, their children spend two hours more on screens each day than those from affluent backgrounds. For kids who need robust academic and extracurricular experiences to close gaps with more privileged peers, every minute is precious. Growing dependence on screens threatens to pull them further behind.

Schools have a critical role to play in closing this “knowledge gap.” At Success Academy, we work to educate our parents on the dangers of screen time, outlining its harms and potential impact on their scholars’ academic readiness for college. There are now many applications available to monitor and limit device use, and we explicitly recommend that parents employ these to restrict the time their children spend on smartphones and tablets.

Educating parents must start early: As elementary school educators know, children are bringing mobile devices to school as young as kindergarten. France recently banned cell phones in schools, and while a growing number of districts — and even states — in the United States are also adopting this policy, most districts still take a laissez-faire approach. While teachers are free to impose a no-phones policy in their individual classrooms, it is almost impossible to uphold such bans when they are not in place across the school.

It falls on principals to take the lead, therefore, in requiring students to keep phones out of sight or at home during the school day, implementing clear and consistent consequences for violating the ban, and communicating early and often to parents about the “why” behind the policy.

Schools are already burdened with myriad responsibilities and competing priorities when it comes to ensuring the well-being of kids in their care. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that actively working to curb screen addiction should rise to the top of those priorities. Mitigating this scourge will be an ongoing endeavor, but it will have a direct impact on schools’ capacity to fulfil the responsibility that is most central and sacred: ensuring children get the academic foundation they need for success in college, professional life, and citizenship.

Eva Moskowitz is the CEO and Founder at Success Academy CharterSchools

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