Under a Spell: Parents Hear Bad News about Screens in Schools

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It’s generally accepted that screens like these at Crozet Library are helpful in education, but are they? Photo: Theresa Curry.

There wasn’t much good news about children and technology for the parents who attended the presentation, “Kids, Teens Screens and the Brain” in mid-September at Henley Middle School. The presentation, sponsored by Hope Presbyterian Church, featured Peter Schmidt, a family therapist who wrote Between Stimulus and Response: What parents need to know about electronic screens and kids. 

At the start of the talk, Schmidt heard from local parents who made a distinction between educational use versus entertainment. His response: screen-based learning is not as positive as widely assumed and screen-based gaming is perhaps worse than suspected, in terms of child development and growth.

In his presentation, Schmidt began by qualifying his status as an expert: “I thought I knew it all,” he said: “Then I had a child.” He acknowledged that conscientious parents choose screen-based activities for their children that seem to be good educational tools. But “the evidence is not there,” he said. An overwhelming majority of studies suggest that screen time is either not helpful or has a negative effect on cognitive development during early childhood. He said he searched in vain for positive studies on learning, screen time, and children but the independent (not sponsored by technology business interests) reviews he found did not support the belief that media is a positive addition to conventional educational tools. 

Although noting that screens are well installed in schools—often in every classroom—and considered a necessary educational aid, he told the story of parents in Montgomery County, Maryland, who successfully worked to liberate their public school classrooms from too much screen time and saw a resulting increase in academic performance. 

He also referred to a September story in the Wall Street Journal that told more stories about parents in Boston, Fort Wayne, Ind., and Austin, Texas, who have insisted that school boards provide proof that technology is a success as an educational tool. These parents are demanding that their children’s schools take a look at reducing screen use, and oppose the increased use of online classes. In addition, the parents are seeking honest answers to how much information is gathered about their children through their online interactions in the classroom.

Peter Schmidt spoke at a forum on young people and screens in September. Submitted photo.

Schmidt said he’d reviewed as many studies as he could find. One study, cited in the Wall Street Journal article, was a report from the National Education Policy Center, a nonpartisan research group at the University of Colorado at Boulder, concluding that the rapid adoption of commercially-generated educational technology came from poorly-thought-out assumptions promoted by the self-interested technology industry.

It’s no wonder that the media doesn’t report the negative aspects of technology, Schmidt said: “If you look at NASDAQ (a leading U.S. stock exchange) you’ll find it dominated by technology companies. Why would these companies work against their own profits?” (The top ratings include technology giants who do not market either educational or entertainment content to children and schools, but also those who do.)

Regardless of whether technology is used for learning or for recreation, you can’t ignore its potential for addiction, Schmidt said. He compared the addictive nature of screens to the crack cocaine epidemic of the 80s. “Cocaine was bad enough, but when smoked in the form of crack—hitting the brain in a matter of seconds—it became irresistible.”  It’s the same with screens, he said: instantly available, instantly stimulating. He likened the changes in family life (both for parents and children) once screens are introduced to being “under a spell,” immersed in pseudo-reality.

Meanwhile, that stimulation is acting upon the prefrontal cortex, the center of executive function that is still developing into a person’s 20s. Schmidt defined executive function as the collection of skills underlying attention, working memory, control of inhibitions, problem solving, self-regulation, and delay of gratification.

The more tragic effect in children’s lives is on their emotional and physical health, he said. He cited specific examples from a variety of sources. One study followed the introduction of an older technology option, television, to Fiji islanders who had never seen it. The researchers found it encouraged adolescent girls to become very critical of their own body type and in some cases led to eating disorders. 

One 2005 study of 1,000 teenagers worldwide showed that the more screen time they racked up, the more suspicious they became, and the more they developed an exaggerated sense of victimization. This resulted in anxiety, mistrust, insecurity and constant apprehension, Schmidt said: “Think about this in terms of where we are in the world today.” 

Another study reported that children exposed to as few as nine minutes of screen time found it hard to follow instructions when compared to children who read for nine minutes.

The last part of Schmidt’s presentation was about how communities could unite around these issues. Citing the importance of networking and planning, he invited parents to imagine a home “not under the spell,” and urged them to coordinate with each other. 

Perhaps the most moving story that Schmidt retold came from Victoria Dunckley, author of “Reset your child’s brain,” who reported in Psychology Today on Aiden, a nine-year-old who loved gaming, and was usually somewhat restricted by his parents in the time allowed for it. He came to prefer it to interacting with real people, and a family celebration found him anxious and restless. Sensing this and trying to avoid an outburst, his parents allowed him to excuse himself after a while and spend more time than usual with his beloved Nintendo DS. Over the course of the evening, he became more and more stimulated until, interrupted by his toddler sister, he shoved her away while hardly realizing what he was doing. Her cries upset the family gathering and shocked the relatives who knew him as a normally well-behaved child. Over the course of the evening, and forbidden further screen time, Aiden tore apart his room as his meltdown continued, found it difficult to sleep, and awoke the next day feeling groggy and dejected, ashamed of his behavior and not really understanding what was happening inside him. 

This is a tragedy, Schmidt said, and it’s larger than one child: “Children may be diagnosed with a mental illness that they don’t really have.” And then there’s the matter of preparing for the real world, as opposed to the world online. How will children cope, he asked, “when right at their fingertips are new experiences so mesmerizing that they outcompete the dreary reality around them?”

Laura Johnson, who organized the event, said parents who attended the event expressed the hope for more conversation on this topic and more networking to support each other.  For resources about the topic discussed, and to find information about upcoming events, visit www.hopecrozet.org/kidsandscreens. Johnson added that those who could not attend can find news about other discussions specifically on this topic can email [email protected] to be added to an email list. 

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