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Teachers' Circle: Does screen time equal scream time?

Ahh, the good old days when parents and teachers were all fretting about how much screen time was too much for our kids.

“These phones are addictive!” “My kid is up all night playing video games!” “What the heck is Tik Tok?” All that changed with the pandemic, when suddenly schools were desperately outfitting all kids with a device so that they could roll out distance learning.

How quickly things do change. Circumstances alter cases, I suppose. In any event, now every kid has an iPad, and without one, serious questions emerge regarding access, fairness, and the “learning gap” that looms large over so many of our schools.

What the heck is going on? How much screen time is “too much”? Has the American Academy of Pediatrics changed its pre-pandemic recommendations to meet the growing fear that our children are “falling behind” in all the measurable ways?

Do we even care anymore about how much time our kids are online, or has all that fallen by the wayside in light of the concerns of these learning losses?

As a teacher in the “pre-pandemic days,” once upon a time, I really was concerned about students’ relationship to technology. I can tell you countless stories of students getting so tangled up with their phones, their text messages, their social media, their “streaks” (that used to be a thing), not to mention the hours upon hours they spent playing video games (often late into the night) that clearly we had a problem. Schools were struggling to grapple.

I actually trace it back to Sept. 11, 2001, when parents were desperate to make contact with their children in light of the horrific events of that day. From that day forward, parents wanted to be able to be in contact with their child in case of such an emergency, and technology was at the ready. The relationship between child and school changed dramatically as a result of that event, and no longer were parents satisfied with simply calling the main office if they needed to contact their child; they wanted direct access. And so cell phones became ubiquitous.

Once the “smart” phone was introduced in 2006, a whole new era was ushered in. Life, for kids and in schools, would never be quite the same.

It took a while, but slowly, the data began to emerge. Students’ mental health was declining, and despite the tremendous creative educational platforms that were emerging, the simple fact was that many students were not thriving in this brave new world. And then it was disclosed that even Google executives were not giving phones to their own children until it was age appropriate (“Why would you give a blow torch to a 4-year-old?” was how one tech leader put it).

And so here we are today, looking at what is currently the norm and asking very real questions, not only “how did we get here?” but “where are we going?”

Recently, I’ve been devouring Oliver Burkeman’s book, “Four Thousand Weeks / Time Management for Humans,” which I highly recommend for many reasons, not the least of which being what he says about screen time. It isn’t so much whether or not screen time is “good” or “bad” in terms of its long term outcome, but more of a simple question of quality of life, or — more precisely — childhood.

Is this what we want for our children? Hours upon hours spent staring at a screen? And it isn’t so much the relative value of what that screen provides so much as what it usurps: what might be taking place if that “delightful” distraction were not so conveniently available.

What actually makes for a quality childhood anyway? Is it time spent online, even if that time is with an educationally enriching program, or time spent daydreaming, digging in the sand, or building an imaginary world with real- world objects?

It really is a fundamental question, and as more concerns regarding artificial intelligence are raised, there is no better time to ask: What is our relationship to the natural world? How much does that relationship matter? And do the choices we make today have real consequences for the future, not just for us, but for our children?

I’m curious what you think. I understand there is no going backward, but looking forward, what is the world you envision for our children, and what role does technology play in that world? These are big questions, but let’s consider them now, before they answer themselves.

Gay Collins of Preston is a retired teacher in the Waterford school system who has a master’s degree from Connecticut College. She can be reached at yagspill@gmail.com.

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