Alarm bells are ringing for New Zealand health professionals who say that current levels of screen use in schools and for homework are putting children’s physical and mental development in jeopardy. 

In the 18 months since the previous Government launched its digital shake-up of education, an increasing number of studies have suggested that high screen use is linked with detrimental effects on children’s health and wellbeing. 

Conditions include headaches, neck and back injuries, sleep disruption, depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. Kiwi pediatric physiotherapists, clinical psychologists, opticians and occupational therapists say they are also seeing these disorders among their young patients. 

They are stepping into the debate over devices with a new website, Sensible Screen Use in Schools (SSUiS). 

Backed by international education experts including Finnish author Pasi Sahlberg, it offers a deep dive into the latest international studies on children and screen usage. 

The action group, which also includes parents, IT professionals and educators, wants new “evidence-based” guidelines developed and implemented.

Digital technology in schools can have “great potential for learning” but its use must be “purposeful and moderate” and “at developmentally appropriate levels”. 

“We need to be talking about this, and we need to act now,” says SSUiS founder, Auckland paediatric physiotherapist Julie Cullen.

Further research is needed, but the growing body of evidence against heavy use of devices should still be “discussed and considered seriously” by the Ministry of Education (MoE) and schools. 

“It’s about balance, and looking at the type and amount of digital technology use that’s appropriate at different ages.”

Schools and communities must work together and it’s crucial to ask questions, she adds. 

“Is it okay for our teens to be on a screen for 10 or more hours a day? With four or five hours of school screen use, a few more for homework and then recreational use, that’s not unusual. 

“Is it okay for our primary-age children to be on a screen for most of their school work, then homework and recreation? Do we need one-to-one iPad initiatives for five-year-olds?”

Until now, health concerns about children’s use of devices focused largely on entertainment activities at home. The onus was on parents to restrict screen use. There was little concrete evidence available on the potential health effects of technology in education. 

Last year a 2018 report by the chief science advisers to the MoE and the Prime Minister noted that “caution is needed when discussing the risks and benefits [of digital technology and wellbeing] because, in some areas, there is only limited evidence for these claims”.

A MoE spokeswoman told Newsroom that it keeps a “watching brief” on emerging evidence and says the issue is complex.

Overseas, the tide may be turning. In January a report by the UK’s Science and Technology Committee on the ‘impact of social media and screen-use on young people’s health’ noted “the absence of good academic evidence is not, in itself, evidence that social media and screens have no effect on young people. 

“The potential links between social media, screens and health is an area of concern for parents, carers, teachers and children alike.”

Ground-breaking legislation passed in Maryland last April requires state education officials to develop best health and safety practices for the use of digital devices in schools. 

Baltimore’s independent ‘school digital health council’ recommends minimal screen use in early childhood education and a maximum of half the school day on screens in high school. It advises students take screen breaks every 20 minutes.

Back in Aotearoa, the digital curriculum will be mandatory for all schools in January. But some worry that the drive to turn Kiwi kids into ‘digital natives’ must be attained at all costs. 

Cullen says the way devices are being used in schools, particularly with young children, “doesn’t sit well with my understanding of child development”.

Many primary schools now introduce Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies from Year 2. They report devices are used on average for 2.5 hours a day. In practice, says Cullen, they are often on-hand constantly. 

A major 2015 OECD study found that high screen use in schools (more than one or two times a week or around 25 minutes a day) is associated with reduced learning outcomes in areas like mathematics and literacy. 

Gamification of tasks like spelling and maths has become a significant part of teaching in many Kiwi schools, despite research that suggests reward-based apps and excessive usage of gaming can make children more susceptible to other addictions in life. 

Victoria University education senior lecturer Dr Bronwyn Wood says she is worried that the “push” for the digital curriculum and devices has outpaced knowledge of “how to use them well”.

“I don’t want to put my head in the sand and say ‘we don’t need technology’ – of course, we do – but we need far greater critical thinking about when and how we use it.”

Auckland teacher Lorna Simmonds has noticed a “paradigm shift” in education, from an emphasis on risk avoidance, or screen usage harm, to supporting children to become literate in a digital world.

Two IT project managers involved in implementing the digital curriculum told her “the focus for schools was an effective roll-out of devices”.  

“The health and safety of students using devices was not actually considered, net safety aside.” 

But, as parents, they were concerned about the time their own kids spent on screens. 

Not all screen time is created equal, says Wood’s colleague, senior lecturer Louise Starkey. 

The OECD report used data from 2012 and measured sending emails, chatting online, browsing the internet and “skill and drill activities”. That sort of screen time should be limited to “absolute maximum of twice a week”.

In 2019, “it’s more complex than this. Those sorts of activities and measurements seem dated”. 

More important than screen time, she says, is “the way computers are used for learning, the curriculum and knowledge that is being taught and the pedagogy underpinning the use.” 

It is also “a common misconception” that the new curriculum is about using devices, adds Ellen MacGregor-Reid, MoE deputy secretary for Early Learning and Student Achievement. 

Computational thinking can be taught without using screens, via games or cards

However it is up to schools, kura and wharekura to design teaching and learning programmes “to suit their own views and philosophies appropriate to their community”.

Cullen insists the total time spent on devices remains important. 

“This can’t just be viewed as the parents’ problem to manage screen use, when schools are asking parents to give their children a personal device and to work on it at home.”

Wood adds: “You can put screens in front of kids, but until the focus shifts from having the screen there, to what is going on with the thinking, and whether the screen is actually even useful, then let’s put it away.”

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