Parents, Poundstone want screen safety laws

Comedian Paula Poundstone joined parent advocates a few hours before her act in Annapolis, Maryland, last month in order to make a pitch for a new law in the state that will regulate how safely students use computers and other devices in their classrooms, WBAL-TV (NBC affiliate) reports.

Ms Poundstone was joined on stage by Cindy Eckard, a Maryland mom who was shown saying, “When I learned that my child would have to use a laptop for school, I assumed there were already safety regulations in place. There is nothing to prevent our kids from being strapped to a computer all day long at school.”

Some of the health issues that have been linked to the overuse of computers affect students’ eyes and bodies: myopia, retinal damage, musculoskeletal aches and pains. But the media has also linked other medical issues, such as sleeplessness and psychological damage, to the amount of time students spend using electronic devices.

“I want my children to be tech savvy. I just don’t want them to be injured by it,” Ms Eckard was shown saying. “We have no idea what the prognosis is for this problem, none, zero,” Ms Poundstone added.

In the recent past, many of these problems surfaced in kids who were spending too much time on the couch watching TV. So tying these medical issues to computer use is logical.

“Kids should be doing things that are intellectually enriching: playing with board games, playing with dice, playing with things that will improve their motor skills, reading,” Health.com quoted the lead author of a 2010 study, Linda Pagani, PhD, a professor in the School of Psychoeducation at the University of Montréal, as saying. “All that is replaced by sitting on the couch.”

She found that each additional hour 2-year-olds spent in front of the TV per week corresponded to a 7 percent decrease in classroom engagement, a 6 percent decrease in overall math achievement, and a 10 percent increase in being bullied by peers. Reading skills didn’t seem to be affected by the amount of TV toddlers watched, though.

That finding is interesting, as it shows kids decreasing the importance of active, engaged learning later in their school lives as they emphasize the sort of passive, receptive learning that comes from watching TV.

Take the leap to today, with ubiquitous 1-to-1 technology programs in our schools. Every kid gets a laptop, an iPad, a Chromebook, or whatever device the school district decides to set them up with. Devices are a little more engaging than TV, because you actually have to take some action to get information, but these aren’t actions tied to how kids normally develop, or grow to love, learning.

No sleep problems from computer use during the school day

Before I get into the headaches and eye problems that have been linked to too much screen time, I want to debunk a myth propagated by Ms Poundstone at her show last month.

Most of the research about sleeplessness, claimed by current advocates for screen safety legislation in Maryland, seems to suggest that playing nonviolent video games during the day doesn’t have much of an impact on students’ sleep patterns.

Screen time at night is a different story. In one study, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the academy recommends limiting nighttime media use, especially by keeping devices and TVs out of children’s bedrooms. With a TV in their bedrooms, kids tended to watch about 15 minutes more of TV every day and experience sleep-related problems.

Eye problems on the rise in the developed world

In what was at the time the largest study of childhood eye diseases ever undertaken in the US, researchers at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine confirmed that the incidence of childhood myopia among American children has more than doubled over the last 50 years. The findings mirror the trend in Asia, where screen time is even greater among children than it is in the US.

Too much screen time was listed as one of the possible culprits, but study authors also hypothesized that kids weren’t getting enough sunlight.

“While research shows there is a genetic component, the rapid proliferation of myopia in the matter of a few decades among Asians suggests that close-up work and use of mobile devices and screens on a daily basis, combined with a lack of proper lighting or sunlight, may be the real culprit behind these dramatic increases,” Rohit Varma, MD, MPH and director of the USC Eye Institute, said in a press release. “More research is needed to uncover how these environmental or behavioral factors may affect the development or progression of eye disease.”

Other studies from the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, confirm the findings that myopia has increased in the US. Although there’s no direct link in research findings between increasing risk of myopia (nearsightedness) and screen time, the coincidence of the rise in computer use and an increase in myopia suggests a link.

“Historically, farsightedness was more common than nearsightedness, and that trend has reversed,” ABC News quoted Dr Robert Maloney of Maloney Vision Institute in Los Angeles as saying. “This is a worldwide problem in the developed world, not just a Chinese problem. For example, 90 percent of Singaporean 18-year-olds are nearsighted, and the numbers in Japan are not far off.”

But the cause of the increase in Singapore is unknown, and an increase in myopia was documented long before video games were a thing.

Plus, a number of studies dating back several decades looked at the relation between near work, like studying and video games, and nearsightedness, and didn’t find a real connection, Dr Maloney said. “A more recent well-done study published several years ago suggested such a correlation. Bottom line is that we don’t know for sure if the video games are causing this.”

As for schools …

I want to caution people against assuming screen use “causes” myopia in kids, because research is correlative, not causative. But the parallel trends are suspicious.

What we know about TV watching, however, is that it turns kids into passive learners who aren’t engaged in the learning process. That research is clear and has shown a causation. This is what schools should deal with when it comes to changing our laws. When it comes to best practices in a classroom, though, the educational value of these devices shouldn’t be overlooked. A safe-use strategy, one that benefits kids’ education and their eye health, is possible.

Kids see devices in a much more nuanced way than Ms Poundstone and screen safety advocates seem to realize—or than they suggest in a “one size fits all” approach.

Students at our schools complain about eye problems, sure, but they’re also concerned about the restricted access to educational websites schools mandate. They want to engage actively in learning activities on their devices, but schools block access to some educational websites for one reason or another. That infuriates students.

“In fact, these students are beginning to have mixed feelings towards the constant refinement of the grading policy and the implementation of devices,” writes Hannah Jenarine, an editor at The Pipeline, the student newspaper at Pikesville High School in Baltimore, in an article last month.

She quotes one junior as saying that “staring at a screen and doing work for hours on this device has caused my eyes and my head to hurt. I am not used to reading on a screen and I would much prefer to have a paper copy.” And she quotes a sophomore as saying, “I think our devices are very helpful because we are able to learn new things much quicker and be more productive in classes. Also, we are saving more trees.”

So before we start making laws to regulate what might be a connection between screen use and myopia, we need to look at what the actual problem is for kids. In order to use the devices and actively engage in the leaning process, students need access to the right websites and they need to learn how to navigate online information and review it critically. They don’t have that now, at least at Pikesville.

Such policies turn students into passive learners, limited to the websites school “leaders” decide are appropriate.

And as far as our laws go, let’s agree on one thing: Kids need to get more sunlight. That could help with the eye problems as well, according to the USC research cited above. We can’t legislate the weather, though, I’m sorry to say, but it makes about as much sense as trying to pass laws that impose limits on screen time.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.