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Screen time for school, work and play is a balancing act

October 4, 2016 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

I heard the sirens shortly before 6 p.m.

It was as normal a Wednesday evening as you could have as the parent of a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old. I was at my desk in the backroom tinkering with an old HAM radio. The kids were watching a show on Netflix after a busy day during the first week of school. Dinner was coming up to temperature in the oven.

Sirens in our neighborhood are usually from the occasional ambulance responding to a medical emergency. These were police sirens – a lot of them.

I ran out of the backroom, through the kitchen and peered out the dining room window trying to figure out what sort of commotion was going on outside.

There was nothing there.

When I checked on the kids, there was my son, curled up on the couch, a Nintendo DS gripped tightly. He was playing some sort of LEGO video game where the characters drive around in different vehicles. Pixelated police cars inside that little personal electronic device were the source of my consternation.

Like a lot of children these days, my kids have a mommy’s house and a daddy’s house. We’re a lucky family because for years, it’s worked relatively well. But there are different rules and expectations at each house. That’s just the way it is. At our house, we don’t have video games or cable television, but the children do get screen time through Netflix and Amazon Prime. His Nintendo DS had somehow gotten through Customs.

All of the public schools I have worked with in the past three years have instituted a one-to-one technology plan. One-to-one technology is when each student has his or her own personal electronic device such as a tablet or Chromebook for use in the classroom and sometimes at home.

One of the major goals of one-to-one technology is to boost learning by increasing student engagement and allowing them to experience a world beyond the classroom. For students in low-income areas, it gives children exposure to the technology that runs America on a day-to-day and minute-to-minute basis.

But hearing those police sirens from a handheld gaming system and a recent conversation with a colleague about one-to-one technology got me thinking.

How much screen time is too much?
Is screen time in the classroom different than screen time at home?
What are schools doing to achieve a balance?

For answers to my questions I turned to the Unadilla Valley Central School District in Upstate New York.

Deborah Rodrigues is a nutritionist at the UV School Based Health Center. One of the key initiatives of the center is the 5-2-1-0 program:  Five or more servings of fruits and vegetables; two hours or less of recreational screen time; one hour or more of physical activity; and zero sugary drinks.

Last year, the market researching firm Childwise found that children ages 5 to 16 spent 6.5 hours in front of a screen each day, compared to just three hours in 1995.

This is a contributing factor to child obesity, which is why the “2” is in the 5-2-1-0 program, Rodrigues said.

Rodrigues said it is not unusual to find children are spending hours and hours straight playing video games. For some students, smart phones are the culprit. For others, it’s on-demand TV shows.

“That’s the biggest thing. You are not doing healthy activities when you are doing that,” she said.

Adults are not immune to the screen time epidemic. In fact, they are spending more time in front of computers, TV and smart phones than their children. A Nielsen Company audience report this summer found adults are logging on average more than 10 hours a day in front of a screen.

Screen time is a fact of modern life, according to Rodrigues, who said she spends more time working on a computer than she would like to.

But the 5-2-1-0 program just gives guidelines for “recreational” screen time.

“They don’t count school work in those two hours,” Rodrigues said.

There are a few differences between recreational screen time and learning screen time. A child playing video games or watching TV can easily get sucked into playing several hours without realizing it. Often, snacks and screen time go together.

But in schools, the daily schedule is segmented – even at the elementary level. At Unadilla Valley, for example, the secondary school classes are just 41 minutes long. Plus, school work is, well…work. Students aren’t slaying dragons or driving LEGO police cars or whatever they do at home while engaged in learning with one-to-one technology.

Unadilla Valley Secondary School Principal Frank Johnson, who had just spent most of the morning on the computer inputting teacher evaluations, said the way individual teachers integrate one-to-one technology in the classroom varies greatly from teacher to teacher. Some teachers use it every class, while others don’t use it at all. Some use it for testing, others use it for homework. This scenario helps ensure students aren’t constantly plugged in.

Johnson said one benefit of going paperless is organization and being organized boosts learning.

“I think administratively, that it allows for better paper management for students. They don’t lose papers, they are all on their iPad,” Johnson said. “If everything is on their iPad, it’s the only thing they have to keep track of.”

All in all, one-to-one technology is a net benefit, according to Johnson.

So, here we are. I have been staring at a screen for quite a while, and so have you. It’s a fact of modern life. But hearing those police sirens and talking to the UV principal and nutritionist have gotten me a little more motivated to put down that smart phone and take my kids for a walk. It’s autumn, and it’s a great time for it.

Bassett Healthcare 5-2-1-0


Jake Palmateer is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. He is the father of a 6-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter. Their adventures include camping, hiking, metal detecting, painting, stargazing, reading, fishing, soccer, mowing the lawn and baking cupcakes.

Copyright ©2016 by Parent Today and Capital Region BOCES; Used with permission

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