Kristine Paulsen, who led a school resource room within an Michigan Indian reservation, once purchased a computer game to help fifth- and sixth-grade students learn about American history.
It didn’t last long.
“I realized that [students] were getting points for killing Indian kids,” she said. “I was horrified and took it back.”
Then Paulsen tried another approach, adopted from an anti-obesity program. She created Take the Challenge – Take Charge, which culminates in a screen-free week, when students turn off their cell phones, TVs, video games, and computers.
Older students lead up to that week by using technology to research its effects.
The first year, researchers noted a 55 percent reduction in aggressive behavior on the playground during the screen-free week. A local youth correctional center implemented the program for middle and high school-age students and saw a 46 percent reduction in aggressive incidents, Paulsen said.
In elementary schools, students scored higher on state assessments when screen-free week coincided with testing week.
“We were kind of shocked,” Paulsen said.
Watching the Monitors
Researchers say technology’s effect on education depends on how it’s used.
“It’s not that technology is bad. [Students] need to be in control and not spend too much time on it,” Paulsen said. “The more TV you watch, you don’t do as well academically and physically.”
Young children are most vulnerable to media, said Lauren Rubenzahl, program coordinator at the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital. What toddlers most need is to interact with other people and physical objects, not screens, she said.
At Waldorf private schools, students don’t use computers in class until middle or high school, and home screen use is discouraged.
Waldorf schools are not against technology but rather emphasize “the right tool for the right time,” said Patrice Maynard, leader of outreach for the Association of Waldorf Schools.
“Many students at Waldorf schools learn the math that makes computers possible before they use computers,” she said. “They’re not dependent on the machine to do the work… and they can avoid an addiction or dependency.”
While some schools encourage laptop use, these may distract students during class. Rubenzahl compared the situation to a student hiding a comic book inside a textbook.
“I don’t know that it’s anything new for kids to be looking for distraction in that way, if the classroom setting is not fully engaging them,” she said.
Technology can and sideline important activities. For example, children may send text messages instead of sleeping or watch television when eating meals, Rubenzahl said.
Screens can distract even if people aren’t using them directly, she said.
“Our brains respond to things changing in our environment. With a screen flickering in a restaurant, it’s really hard not to keep looking at it,” she said.
Critical Thinking about Technology
When media exposes children to violence, they can become desensitized, frightened, and more aggressive, Rubenzahl said, and how much depends on the child
“All media are educational,” she said. “It’s just what they teach that varies.”
Many parents “have no idea” how media may hurt their children, or feel awkward approaching a topic where younger people dominate, Paulsen said. But the research shows parents who do limit screen time and content “have a lot of influence on their children,” she said.
Attentive parents can help their children choose wisely, Paulsen said.
Parents can start productive conversations by assuming children will be the how-to experts, but not the self-control experts, Rubenzahl said.
“A teenager could say, ‘You could do this on Facebook,’ but a parent could bring the fully developed brain in,” she said. “They can say, ‘How do you decide what to post on Facebook?’ and talk through it with them.”
A Neutral Tool
The positive or negative impact of media on kids depends on what kind they use, how often, and its context, Rubenzahl said.
Programs that most benefit children are those that adults use, like word processing or data entry software, she said. Programs designed for children often do children less good than advertised.
“Media are not inherently bad or good. As with every other tool…It’s a matter of how you use it,” Rubenzahl said.
Image by San Jose Library.