To better manage screen time, distinguish between “good” and “bad” practices?


The Covid-19 pandemic has profoundly changed our lives, and in particular the time we spend on screens. The blurred border that exists between recreational and educational uses raises questions that we are only beginning to understand, especially with regard to young people.

Even before the onset of Covid-19, screen time was a concern. A 2019-2020 New Zealand survey found that four out of five children exceeded the country’s current health ministry recommendation of two hours of recreational screen per day, beyond screen time related to school activities.

But with lockdowns and restrictions put in place to fight the pandemic having normalized, it has become increasingly difficult to get away from the screens. Children grow up in a digital society, surrounded by a multitude of devices used for everything from social connection to education to entertainment.

The line between leisure, communication and learning is becoming increasingly blurred. Screen time, at first glance purely recreational, can actually be important for learning, mental health, and awareness of important issues.

YouTube, for example, is entertaining and educational at the same time. Its use at school, in addition to teaching, is increasing. But it is also used in other ways, for example to promote societal changes, as German YouTuber Rezo showed with a viral video on climate change, which helped accelerate reforms in his country.

Likewise, the famous online game Minecraft has many educational and social benefits, just like Roblox or Fortnite (where they are perhaps less obvious), which provide favorable spaces for enriching exchanges, problem solving and socialization. experiential learning.

Limits to set?

All of this poses an interesting dilemma: Can we categorize screen time into separate categories, and should we apply limits to some but not others?

The fine line between recreational and educational has led researchers at the Center for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland (Koi Tū) to call for the development of clearer and more detailed official recommendations on usage time.

They believe that the limits currently recommended do not represent the diversity of time spent in front of a screen by learners, a point of view supported by a synthesis of academic research on the subject. While studies tend to show a link between excessive screen time and a range of behavioral, learning and other problems, the results are far from conclusive and can be attributed to other factors. .

The synthesis also revealed that the type of use matters: in many cases the negative effects are due to the passive use of the screen, while the interactive use can have positive influences, such as better increased academic performance and cognitive abilities.

Finding the right balance

It therefore emerges from these studies that we must reorient our vision of screen time and no longer be satisfied with a simplistic measurement of it. We must try to better understand what our children do with it.

While it is obviously important to find a balance between passive and interactive use, it is also necessary to find ways to encourage and favor more productive online behavior on the social and educational level.

This will also help guide the use of new technologies in schools. Rather than being integrated into every aspect of learning as a whole, they should add value or enhance teaching and learning, rather than simply replacing traditional practices.

New Zealand’s results in the PISA 2018 survey offer a particularly relevant example to shed light on the role of screens in classrooms. They show that kids who use them in subjects like math and science score lower than those who don’t.

In August 2021, the country’s Ministry of Education declared  : “Digital tools can improve learning, but there are few situations where this is currently the case, and many where they hinder it”.

Active and passive time

It is true that the validity of PISA tests raises many questions and that more general research on the influence of screens in classrooms has yielded mixed results.

In general, it is impossible to determine a causal and linear relationship between the use of digital tools and school results. Therefore, rather than interpreting the results of the PISA study on screen time as detrimental to learning, we should see how screens are actually used in the classroom.

It is important to focus on integrating technologies that enhance learning. Students learn best when they are actively involved , and when they create and direct their learning.

The same principles can be applied to the use of digital tools, limiting passive consumption for the benefit of students’ creativity. This will open up new learning opportunities and provide students with authentic experiences.

For example, instead of just watching a YouTube video of the solar system, students could create their own augmented reality simulation, which would require them to apply their knowledge to properly place, size, and animate digital objects.

Such a rebalancing of screen time will make it possible to avoid the most harmful effects of these tools which have become ubiquitous and to highlight some of their specific strengths.

But it will require a deeper and more critical reflection on what will be gained or lost in a world where the use of digital technology is increasingly essential.

Author Bios: Kathryn Maccallum is Associate Professor of Digital Education Futures and Cheryl Brown is Associate Professor of e-Learning both at the University of Canterbury