August 2017


Screen time, all the time

By Russell Marks
Image of child looking at screen

© PhotoAlto / Alamy Stock Photo

Do smart devices in classrooms help kids learn?

“Sometimes it’s really difficult to tear their attention away from the screens,” says Ruby. In her mid 30s, Ruby is a mother of two preschool children and also teaches prep and first grade at a government school in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs.

I’ve asked Ruby to talk to me about tablets and other “smart” devices in classrooms. “To be honest it’s a bit of a problem,” she says. “I really try to limit how much time they’re on the tablets, but pack-up time tends to be a bit fraught. And there’s always a few who have left theirs at home, and another one whose tablet doesn’t work properly.”

What does she mean by “fraught”? Ruby pauses. “Well, I guess it’s different to packing up other activities, like art and craft, or handwriting. With those, some of the kids grumble a bit but everything’s pretty smooth.” But Ruby says the tablets bring out a lot of aggressive and obsessive behaviour. “I find myself needing to be much firmer, much more often, when it comes to the tablets.”

I’ve since spoken to more than a dozen primary and secondary teachers from schools across the country that require tablets in classrooms. Unprompted, most complain of similar problems. Magda teaches in a school that requires students to leave their devices at each classroom door, and says the contrast with the school she used to teach at on Victoria’s western coast is stark. “It was almost like kids were addicted to their iPads,” she says of her previous school. “They’d get in this weird zone and it was just impossible to get them to put their iPads down.” How many students in each class exhibited this kind of behaviour? “About half.”

Parents share Ruby’s and Magda’s concerns. “We both get the whole thing about kids and screens,” says Matt, a lawyer whose daughter is six. “It doesn’t stop Prisha and I having some pretty big barneys over it. But I think we both probably have too many moments where we just give in and let her play with one of our phones. It’s a lot easier than dealing with the tantrums.”

Most parents of young children were born before the World Wide Web went public in 1991. Their exposure to it was limited by the technology itself. If we agree that the digital world as we know it now really only dates from the mid 2000s – when social media and then internet-enabled smartphones became ubiquitous almost overnight – no parent is a “digital native”. Their kids, however, were born into this world. Just as parents once had to work out how to regulate their children’s TV and Nintendo habits without being able to draw on their own experiences, today’s parents have no idea what it’s like to have Facebook or Instagram in school, or personalised screens – with their never-ending streams of messages and updates – in the classroom.

Australian parents are anxious about screens in their children’s lives. Incredibly anxious. In December 2015, the Australian Child Health Poll, a quarterly survey run by the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, listed “excessive screen time” as Australians’ number one concern affecting the health of children and teenagers – above child abuse, family violence, bullying, unhealthy diets and obesity. Even above internet safety.

For that reason, the Royal Children’s Hospital devoted its most recent poll, released in June, to the issue of children’s screen time. It found that two thirds of primary school children – and more than a third of preschoolers – have their own mobile device. Close to half are using them at bedtime, which is linked to sleep problems. Half of toddlers and preschoolers are using them without supervision. All parents know that the interactive digital babysitter is much more effective than the passive televisual one. Preschool children on aeroplanes are constantly plugged into their own devices (with or without headphones), as I discovered on recent flights. “We found that 85% of parents of young children say they use screens to occupy their kids so they can get things done,” says Dr Anthea Rhodes, the poll’s director.

Parents may instinctively know that it’s not the healthiest thing to do, but they also get a lot of contradictory advice about screens. The anxiety-provoking public health messages imploring them to limit screen time sit alongside educators’ claims that they are useful tools to promote literacy and numeracy. “The discerning use of digital technologies in the classroom can maximise learning opportunities,” the Victorian Department of Education and Training’s website offers. “Research shows that there are many benefits to your child having a personal device.” Claims like this are rife. In June, the federal assistant minister for industry, innovation and science, Craig Laundy, launched the report of a research project co-facilitated by the University of Canberra. Its results apparently showed that technology can turbo-charge students’ maths skills so that they make a whole year’s worth of gains in just three weeks. Last year, specialist preschool radio station Kinderling seemed to deliver both messages at once – to screen and not to screen – when it directed listeners to its downloadable app so that they could participate in its “Screen Free Challenge”. And more and more Australian primary schools are urging parents to equip their children with tablets.

“I was pretty adamant that we were going to try to limit Chelsea’s screen usage until she was older, maybe 12 or something,” says her mum, Emily. Chelsea is now eight. “We both really tried hard not to let her use our phones much at all. I’d seen other parents give in to the tantrums and I was like, ‘No way.’ But then she started school and her school wanted her to have an iPad.” So Emily and her partner bought one for more than $700 (including insurance and a sturdy case to prevent damage). “Now we struggle to get her off it, especially at bedtime.”

When the 19th-century reformers were agitating for free, compulsory and secular state-provided education, they didn’t anticipate that “compulsory” would apply to tablets that can cost up to $1000. Many parents’ own school stationery requirements were limited to pens, pencils, exercise books, glue sticks and maybe a floppy disk. The story of how tablets came to be in Australian classrooms can be traced to Kevin Rudd’s Digital Education Revolution (DER), which in August 2009 began its long march through Australia’s schools, aiming to provide a state-sponsored laptop to every student in years 9 to 12. The DER hiccuped through cracked screens, hardware obsolescence, Rudd’s clogged in-tray and a very limp buy-in from the states. In 2013 Tony Abbott, then the prime minister, did not renew the DER funding – a decision that mirrored those made in many other countries that had embraced similar laptop programs. Peru, for instance, spent US$200 million providing laptops to 800,000 students in its public schools before pulling the plug; the United States spent $100 billion pouring tech into schools before winding the campaign right back.

Just because the funding stopped didn’t mean it was the end for “the Net’s growing hegemony over information”, as technology writer Nicholas Carr calls it. Students and parents began demanding that children be allowed to bring to class their own laptops and tablets and phablets and iThings, which tended to be better quality than the state-provided devices. In line with jurisdictions around the world, Australia’s state and territory education departments adopted a laissez-faire approach that effectively left the question of whether students could bring their own devices to class up to individual schools. That sat happily within existing philosophies like devolution (empowering school communities to make key decisions) and “student-focused” learning. Some schools sandbagged themselves from the digital flood, banning devices entirely. Crinkling News – a hardcopy newspaper for upper-primary-aged children, named after the sound it makes when it’s read – is just one of many un-digital innovations aimed at getting kids off screens. But many high schools – and increasing numbers of primary schools – now have in place variations of a BYO approach when it comes to devices. The Queensland government’s policy, for instance, is called “BYOx”, the “x” standing for more than mere hardware: “it also includes software, applications, connectivity or carriage service and appropriate behaviours”. In other words, students can bring anything they like. Even manners. But if it costs, they pay for it – and that includes any damages, repairs or replacements.

This user-pays approach is even seen in some of Australia’s poorest suburbs, as Melbourne social worker Tina found when her client Casey asked for $700 so she could pay for an iPad for her six-year-old daughter, Ella. When Tina phoned the school directly, a staff member confirmed that they required an Apple tablet (for the school’s specialist learning apps) with at least 32GB of memory. “You must have lots of parents who aren’t that well off,” Tina implored. “Don’t you have alternative arrangements?” The liaison told her that each classroom has six backup iPads. “But we can’t have everybody relying on them – they’re mainly reserved for students whose iPads are being repaired or were left at home.”

Dr Maureen O’Neill, a mother of six and a former P-12 teacher, wanted to ensure that equity remained a central concern in the report she consulted on for Queensland’s education department. The report looked at the experiences of five schools experimenting with particular approaches to devices. Each school tried to mitigate its equity concerns with innovations such as daily loan schemes or payment plans, but the starting point was that all children should have tablets, and the state wasn’t going to supply them. What’s more, some school principals had already adopted variations of universities’ BYO policies, and it seems the approach Queensland ultimately took built on these initial decisions.

But do smart devices promote learning? Most education policy documents don’t really answer the question. Queensland’s BYOx report stated that “the department recognises that 1-to-1 programs are a critical component in an international move towards individualised learning”.

Very few people dispute the proposition that tablets should be available to upper secondary school students, who will shortly be working in a world in which it seems every occupation – from lawyers to delivery contractors – is finding a handy use for smart devices. But while kids are learning to read? Research evidence tends to show that although digital technology can improve students’ interest in learning, increases in actual achievement are only modest. Stories are told and re-told of Silicon Valley parents sending their children to tech-free schools, because they know more about both research findings and what the companies are doing to “hook” users in. And there’s very little independent research that investigates the utility and benefit of smart devices in primary classrooms.

It’s a void that is being filled by consumer demands and tech companies’ strategic lobbying. Until recently, the only research that the Victorian Department of Education and Training pointed to on its website to support its BYO policy was commissioned by hardware and software companies like Intel and Blackboard (a designer of electronic “learning management systems”). For instance, the DET’s website links to an evaluation report of a five-year project in Henrico County, Virginia, US, where 30,000 Intel laptops were distributed to all middle- and high-school students. The report is branded with Intel’s logo, because, as the report states, Intel, Apple, Cisco, Dell and Verizon are “strategic collaborators”, not just suppliers. Lloyd Brown, the county’s director of technology and information services, cannot praise Intel enough throughout the report.

The DET’s website also links to the New Media Consortium’s Horizon Project, a qualitative longitudinal study that began in 2002. The New Media Consortium is a US-based international not-for-profit that was founded in 1993 by computer hardware manufacturers, software developers and publishers “who realized that the ultimate success of their multimedia-capable products depended upon their widespread acceptance by the higher education community”. In other words, the whole intent of the Horizon Project is to push technology into schools. Meanwhile, the June 2017 University of Canberra project that “proved” incredible gains in numeracy was undertaken in collaboration with Samsung Electronics.

Practically every living Australian who attended primary school here will recall the Commonwealth Bank’s enduring Dollarmites program, through which the bank has sent agents into primary schools since 1928 to entice children to open interest-earning, fee-free accounts in their own names. The balances are insignificant for the bank. What is not insignificant is the brand loyalty the Commonwealth Bank has enjoyed across generations – an asset as valuable as any, especially after the bank’s privatisation was completed in 1996. The prevailing BYO approach to technology could be Dollarmites on steroids. If Apple and Samsung have suffered reputational damage over contractors’ labour practices, the origins of source materials, tax avoidance and exploding devices, all of that is likely to be offset if they can hook very young children and their families into lifelong relationships with their shiny products.

In short, most of the research that finds cognitive improvements in areas such as spatial awareness, numeracy and memory is funded or facilitated by tech companies themselves. These “technologists” ask how digital tech is transforming students’ learning for the better, and then go looking for answers. But there’s a whole separate cluster of researchers asking a very different question: what’s actually going on inside our brains – and our kids’ brains – when we make these screens our close companions? There are still very few brain imaging studies in this field, but some of the emerging results aren’t promising. A major Canadian study, which between 2011 and 2015 looked at 894 toddlers, was presented at this year’s Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting in San Francisco. It showed a very strong correlation between toddlers’ use of smartphones and significant language delays. A University of California study reported in 2014 that upper-primary-aged children who went screen-free for just five days were “significantly” better at reading the emotions of others than kids who had kept using screens. Causal links between evening screen time and sleep problems have been accepted for some time. The frontal cortex appears to be stimulated by much of what happens on smart devices in the same way that it’s stimulated by cocaine and sex.

According to the Sydney Myopia Study and Kate Gifford, former president of Optometry Australia, the number of 12-year-olds suffering short-sightedness doubled in just six years – an increase attributable to screen use and simply not going outside enough.

Promises that the digital revolution would trigger a revolution in literacy and learning have been around since the 1980s, but despite the frequent research claims about the benefits of digital tech, most measures of educational attainment – literacy, numeracy, memory, recall, critical thinking – show steady declines over the course of the digital era. There are myriad non-digital factors behind this decline, but a growing body of evidence suggests that digital technology – with its web-enabled, hyperlinked, social media–loaded, blip-ridden, backlit screens – actively distracts from processes integral to learning, such as memory formation. Nicholas Carr calls the internet a gigantic “distraction machine”, and it’s this machine that children’s brains are plugged into – and developing around. Cal Newport, associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, says we’ve built this distraction machine at precisely the moment when sustained concentration is most valuable to our knowledge economy. “This is somewhat ludicrous,” Newport told the ABC last year. “I think we are leaving a lot of economic productivity on the table.”

“All the evidence to date [measuring devices as learning aids] is predominantly anecdotal,” says Dr Kristy Goodwin, a researcher and consultant well known among parents of young children for her frequent media appearances on the issues associated with screen use. While Goodwin hovers provisionally on the side of the debate that favours the use of technology, she says extrapolating findings from secondary students is particularly fraught, given younger children’s much earlier stages of brain development. “I’m the first to say we’re conducting a bit of a living experiment.”

The old anxieties about the effects of TV and computer game consumption on children’s health are now magnified, intensively, because of smart devices. In his book Glow Kids, addiction expert Dr Nicholas Kardaras brings together most of the existing evidence that shows connections between excessive screen use and various mental health concerns including aggression, depression, ADHD and psychosis. It reads like a modern horror story, though it scares parents more than children. Kardaras recounts the time Susan discovered her six-year-old son, John, sitting up in bed next to his glowing iPad, his wide eyes bloodshot. In the preceding months, John had inexorably replaced physical and social activity with Minecraft, a game that one of John’s teachers had described to Susan as something like “electronic Lego” and that formed the basis for a sanctioned club at the school.

By the time I spoke with experts such as Goodwin and Dr Philip Tam, a Sydney-based child psychiatrist working with young people whose internet behaviour creates problems in other areas of their lives, I’d heard too many people describe their and their children’s use of Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and Minecraft and Angry Birds and Candy Crush in metaphors commonly associated with addiction. “There’s no question that the human brain has evolved to seek out flow-inducing effects,” Tam says.

We don’t generally describe reading a book or playing a violin as addictive, because the pleasure only comes after we put significant effort in – effort that’s difficult to sustain. Gambling and drinking are comparatively passive activities. Where do smart devices fit on this spectrum? They’re certainly easy to use for long periods of time. “The fact that they’re mobile is important,” says Goodwin. “It was very hard to smuggle a TV or a Commodore 64 into your bed at night.”

What we’re doing on these screens is different, too. “Social media is endless,” Tam says. “The internet is endless. Companies want you to stay on, stay connected.” Indeed, social-media companies and app developers are all engaged in what former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, now of the Time Well Spent movement, calls “a race to the bottom of the brain stem” for the online advertising dollar, which pays according to the length of time each eyeball stays on each page or each app.

“We will never have a sense of closure,” Tam says. “There’s always a different level, a new game, a new site, new tweets and Instagrams. The human brain can’t tolerate this uncertainty well.” It’s 90 years since psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik first published her research showing that unfinished tasks linger in the brain – positively as memories, negatively as obsessions – much more than completed tasks do.

There is now a discussion as to whether internet addiction should join gambling – currently the only recognised non-substance, behavioural addiction – in the next iteration of the psychiatrists’ bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Tam co-facilitates the Healthy Digital Diet project – a metaphor that suggests addictive consumption – which encourages individuals to approach their use of the internet and social media with balance and moderation. It’s an approach that emphasises the agency of the individual and overlooks structural or environmental factors. A developer of software apps himself, Tam describes himself as pragmatic. “Digital technology is here to stay, and we have to learn how to live with it,” he says. “I don’t like using the term ‘addiction’,” he told me – but any distinction may be merely semantic. “I see kids who drop out of school entirely, who are violent towards their parents, who withdraw from all their friends,” he acknowledges. Tristan Harris is unequivocal, telling ABC radio show Future Tense that slot machines become addictive two to three times faster than all other forms of gambling, because they operate according to a “variable schedule reward” principle (sometimes we win and sometimes we don’t). “Literally, our phone is a slot machine. Every time you turn it around to check what’s on it, we’re kind of playing the slot machine to see what we get.”

Teenagers and adults live in a world in which addictive substances and preoccupations are ever-present risks. As I was speaking to experts I floundered for equivalent risks for children. Most are capable of being regulated by parents, carers and educators. Sugar is among the most dangerous substances readily available to kids, but even that is subject to factors like their ability to pay for it autonomously. It’s possible that with smart devices, which once purchased are freely accessible to children, we’ve developed the first real addictive threat for them. Or, as we occasionally glance up at the train carriage full of commuters staring spookily into the glowing devices in their hands, to what extent are we projecting our anxieties about our own, every-waking-moment screen use onto our kids?

Like everyone else, children are spending more and more time in front of screens. The Child Health Poll of June this year found on average Australian children spend at least four and a half hours every day looking at screens – and that’s just at home. The classroom no longer offers much respite. Ruby, the primary teacher, wonders about where it’s all going. “I’ve asked lots of questions in training sessions but nobody is able to tell me whether we’re actually doing the right thing,” she says. “There’s no turning back the clock. Though sometimes I wonder whether what schools need to be doing is teaching kids how to not use screens all the time.”

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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