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How to Decrease Screen Time for Students

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We know we should limit kids' screen time. But learning has moved online. What can educators, parents, and students do to make sure online learning doesn't become unhealthy?  

It's mind-boggling to imagine how many hours our students are spending staring at screens. 

Maybe they're doing online classes with their teachers for the first time or upping their hours on Khan Academy and Zearn Math. 

Add to this the fact that their social lives have moved entirely digital—now hanging out virtually with their friends in Netflix parties, Houseparty, and even Zoom, in addition to an already ample diet of Snapchat, Instagram, and texting.

How unhealthy is it to stare at our phones, tablets, and laptops all day and evening?

The scientific consensus is that more rigorous research is needed to pinpoint the effects of screen time on physical and emotional health. However, we know enough to say with certainty that staring at screens all day and night can strain the eyes and disrupt circadian rhythms, too. And, certainly, sitting constantly—as opposed to moving our bodies—is unhealthy for kids and adults alike. 

Here are three recommendations for keeping our online lives as healthy as possible:

  1. Teachers who want their students to watch videos as part of their homework might consider which could be listened to instead—perhaps during a walk around the neighborhood (while practicing social distancing!).
  2. For taking notes, encourage students to go analog. Even before I converted my own course to a distance-learning format, I asked students to bring a notebook and pencil to class. Scientific research shows that taking notes by hand is more beneficial than typing away on a laptop.
  3. When delivering an online class, periodically cue students to look away from the screen (e.g., "Now, from memory, redraw the figure we discussed last week"). 

Like everyone, I'm hoping that the resumption of in-person classes comes sooner rather than later. In the meantime, keep in mind that we may need to adjust expectations for screen-time limits, as we have for so many things during this pandemic. 

Angela Duckworth, the founder and CEO of the education nonprofit Character Lab, is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. You can follow Character Lab on Twitter @TheCharacterLab.


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