Impact of technology on children: What can schools do?


People often feel afraid or cautious when it comes to new technological advancements. However, we live in a time when digital devices have significantly changed the world and how children live.

Today, many children in the United States have access to tablets and smartphones from a very early age, even before they develop basic motor and communication skills. This raises an important question: What are the effects of technology on children, and how can screens influence their overall growth and development? Exploring the impact of technology on children is crucial, and there is a pressing need for thorough research to inform policies and practices in this area.

The increasing use of technology among children has sparked concerns regarding its impact on their brains, physical health, and socio-emotional, cognitive, and overall development. Various organizations, including the U.S. government and medical societies, express the need to restrict children’s screen time, either partially or completely. However, experts in the field criticize these “restriction-focused” guidelines, stating they lack solid research evidence.

Nevertheless, it is still prudent to adopt a cautious approach, which includes practices like turning off devices when not in use, avoiding screen time an hour before bedtime, and establishing specific times (e.g., during meals or while driving) and locations (e.g., the bedroom) as media-free zones.

Most importantly, it is crucial to prioritize activities strongly linked to healthy development, such as ensuring good quality and regular sleep and spending quality time with family and friends. These factors, among others, hold greater significance than strictly enforcing limits on screen time to provide children in the United States with the best possible foundation for their future.

The Importance of Co-viewing

“Co-viewing,” which refers to parents watching videos with their children, can potentially enhance children’s learning from video content. When parents actively engage in co-viewing by posing questions, providing descriptions, and labeling the content, it helps children pay more attention. However, the extent of cognitive outcomes associated with co-viewing remains unclear. It is possible that simply engaging in activities, whether screen-based or not, with a caregiver may be beneficial for child development.

It is important to note a potential drawback of co-viewing, as it may inadvertently widen the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged families. Children whose parents have the resources and time to curate and guide screen time may derive greater benefits than those from families with fewer financial resources and less-involved parents. Therefore, it is crucial to encourage all parents in the United States to talk with their children about what they are watching. For parents with limited time to spend with their children, incorporating co-viewing into other health-promoting and developmental habits, even for infants and young children, can be beneficial.

Implications of Technology for Physical Health

1. Screen Time Impacts Children’s Sleep

Modern devices emit short wavelengths of blue light, affecting natural sleep and wake cycles. The use of self-luminous devices such as computers, cell phones, and tablets in the evening has been linked to reduced melatonin levels, a hormone that regulates sleep. A systematic review of the literature on sleep patterns in school-aged children and adolescents indicates a negative association between screen time and sleep outcomes, including delayed sleep timing and reduced sleep duration. However, it is important to note that association does not imply causality, and accurately measuring sleep and screen time can be challenging. Limiting technology use, especially before bedtime, or protective measures like blue light-blocking glasses may help prevent sleep disruptions. Further research is needed to determine the effectiveness of activating features like “night shift” or “night mode” on mobile devices to avoid melatonin disruption. Incorporating these practices into good sleep hygiene, avoiding caffeine, regular exercise, maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, and creating a sleep-friendly environment can contribute to healthy sleep habits.

2. The Link Between Obesity and Screens

In recent years, there has been growing concern about the relationship between increased screen time, particularly television viewing and computer usage, and the rising rates of childhood obesity in the United States. Eating while watching television, for instance, has been found to contribute to higher energy intake as it can delay the feeling of fullness and obscure signals of satiety from previously consumed food.

To address this issue, parents and caregivers can take certain steps to mitigate the potential negative effects. Limiting the availability of unhealthy snacks in the home is one effective strategy. Instead, providing children with healthier snack options while they engage in screen time, such as fruits or vegetables, can help promote better eating habits. Additionally, making mealtimes screen-free can encourage children to focus on their food and eat mindfully, reducing the likelihood of overeating.

By implementing these practices, parents and caregivers can create an environment that supports healthier eating habits and helps prevent excessive calorie intake associated with screen-related activities.

3. Ability to Socialize and Play

The notion of a “displacement effect” suggests that time spent using technology can detract from other potentially more valuable activities. However, recent literature indicates that reducing screen time may not necessarily motivate adolescents and children in the United States to engage more in physical activity. Other studies have shown that screen-based, sedentary behavior and leisure-time physical activity are independent. While television watching may displace activities like reading, the overall evidence regarding the negative impact of displacement is relatively weak.

Although screens do not directly cause myopia (short-sightedness), excessive time spent indoors is associated with its onset. Therefore, parents and teachers should ensure that screen time does not overshadow outdoor time.

The effects of displacement can vary based on the duration of screen time and the activities being displaced. For instance, heavy Internet use might interfere with participation in clubs and sports, while moderate use has been shown to encourage participation. This consistent finding across research indicates that moderate Internet use and shared media experiences enable young individuals to build rapport with their peers.

What Can Schools Do to Foster Safe, Responsible Internet Use

Schools and educational systems are crucial in promoting safe and responsible Internet usage in the United States. The task at hand for schools is to find a balance between minimizing the negative aspects of the Internet and digital devices while still harnessing their benefits for teaching, learning, and social connections. To achieve this, educating children on effectively managing risks online is important. Schools and educational systems can implement various approaches to support students’ digital use.

1. Adopt a Whole-School Approach to Resolving Online Safety Issues

Effective protection and support of students online can be achieved when teachers and support staff are equipped to recognize, respond to, and resolve online safety issues. Staff and teachers must receive regular training on understanding online risks and their consequences. Involving parents and students in this process can also enhance their ability to deal effectively with online issues. Additionally, it is important to consider the connection between the online and physical worlds. Online safety also includes putting screens away when crossing roads and walking to ensure safety. By addressing these aspects, schools in the United States can create a comprehensive approach to online safety that safeguards and supports students’ digital experiences.

2. Develop and Enact Online Safety Policies and Procedures

Implementing effective policies and procedures is crucial in promoting responsible and safe online practices for students and staff. These policies should strike a balance by supporting students’ online learning without unnecessarily restricting or limiting their online access. These policies must be integrated with safeguarding measures, including cyberbullying and online behavior policies. Engaging in conversations with children about their experiences and involving them in developing online safety policies is important, as they often have firsthand knowledge of the new risks they may encounter online. By taking these steps, schools in the United States can establish a comprehensive framework that ensures a safe and supportive online environment for students and staff.

3. Establish Coherent (Cyber)bullying Policies

When addressing cyberbullying, it is important to integrate policies within the broader context of traditional bullying. There is a strong correlation between the two, and successful interventions targeting traditional bullying may also have a positive impact on reducing cyberbullying. Effective policies addressing online and offline bullying should clearly describe acceptable and unacceptable behavior and outline the consequences for violating these rules. By establishing comprehensive policies that cover both traditional and cyberbullying, schools in the United States can create a safer and more supportive environment for all students.

4. Incorporate E-Safety into the Curriculum

Incorporating online safety into the school’s curriculum is crucial in equipping children in the United States to be safe and responsible technology users. Peer-support programs and mentoring schemes have been identified as effective approaches to enhancing online safety. However, e-safety should not be isolated from the overall learning experience. There is a growing belief that schools should teach digital citizenship as part of digital literacy, aiming to foster more positive online behavior among students. This includes educating children about online etiquette, appropriate behavior, and strategies for harm reduction, emphasizing empathy and privacy. By integrating these aspects into the curriculum, schools in the United States can empower students to navigate the digital world responsibly and contribute positively to online communities.

5. Strengthen Family-School Partnerships

Ensuring online safety extends beyond the school environment and into the home. With younger children accessing the Internet and children using technology outside of school, parents and caregivers have an increasingly vital role in educating children in the United States about technology and online safety. It is essential for parents and caregivers to be well-informed about effective ways to respond to safety incidents and to mediate their child’s exposure to online risks.

Moreover, technology can serve as a valuable tool for parent-teacher communication. It can keep parents informed about their children’s activities and time spent at school while involving them in discussions and activities (such as online platforms). This promotes collaboration between parents and teachers, ensuring a shared understanding and proactive approach to online safety for children.

6. Harness the Power of Peers

In addition to seeking support from parents and teachers, children, particularly adolescents, often rely on their peers. They also learn about new opportunities online, primarily through their peers. Peer mediation can positively impact children’s digital literacy and the types of activities they engage in online. Therefore, it is crucial to foster an open culture of e-safety in schools in the United States, where peers can provide valuable advice and access to resources. Encouraging a supportive environment where students feel comfortable seeking help from their peers contributes to a comprehensive approach to online safety within the school community.