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Do Screens Get in the Way of Learning?

Melanie Hempe

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Lately you’ve noticed that it takes your tween son twice as long to write a paragraph on the computer as it took you to write one in cursive, back in the day. But he’s super fast at surfing the net on your smartphone. And despite all the websites at her fingertips, your teen daughter can’t seem to complete a research paper in any reasonable amount of time. Yet she can quickly find a meme or GIF for any occasion.


Neither one of them can remember much of what their teachers or classmates said in class, either. But they know everything that happened on Instagram during the school day. Something’s missing here. Isn’t all this technology supposed to enhance their learning?

The transition to a new school year can be the perfect time to rethink your child’s overall screen “health.”  Nine hours is the amount of time that teens spend on a screen a day according to a 2015 report from Common Sense Media, and that doesn’t even include the time spent on a screen at school. Devoting nine hours a day doing anything as immersive as staring at a screen is too much, so parents must be intentional about balance for the sake of their child’s overall academic, mental, and social development. In addition, as schools require more screens in the classroom, total screen hours add up quickly, which means parents must now be even more diligent about screen overuse at home.

Here’s a list of considerations for parents trying to determine the best screen practices for their school age children.

  1. The addictive nature of technology reduces authentic human relationships. Nothing replaces human contact. Building relationships and being comfortable with others are not only foundational skills for every child, but they are also necessary to develop empathy, trust, and overall success and happiness in life. While the internet is good for fact finding, every minute on a screen replaces face time with peers and teachers; therefore parents must be diligent to ensure that children get plenty of face time with real people every day.
  2. It is easy to rely on screen technology instead of one’s own memory.  Cognitive offloading is a term that describes the dependency on the computer to retrieve facts instead of using one’s own memory. When children depend on technology to do the work of learning—copying and pasting a vocabulary definition instead of writing it by hand in a workbook, for example—they weaken their ability to think deeply and concentrate. Like any muscle, the brain needs to “work out” by thinking deeply and critically and not just practicing data entry skills or surfing for quick answers to get a task done.
  3. Handwriting is more valuable than typing notes in class. Research by Psychological Science found that when compared to typing, the process of taking notes by hand is associated with improved long-term information retention, better thought organization and increased ability to generate new ideas. Taking notes by hand activates a unique neural circuit that makes learning easier as students transfer ideas into their own words. This forces them to use more brain connections and cognitive resources to understand the deeper concept being conveyed by the teacher. Children who practice handwriting have a clear developmental advantage, plus it helps develop and retain fine motor skills.
  4. Laptop use in the classroom is linked to lower grades. Studies tell us that there is a direct correlation between classroom personal laptop use and lower grades and SAT scores. Not only is it harder to process information on a screen (heavy cognitive load) but also the temptations to go to non-academic sites are high. Young brains do not have the restraint to avoid the distractions of social media, shopping, surfing Youtube videos or playing video games in class. These personal laptops are also creating screen distractions during times when socialization at school should be naturally occurring (lunch, study hall, etc.). The overall class performance is also lowered for students who sit near a peer who is “screen multitasking” and for students who read content on a screen vs a paper book.
  5. Don’t assume that your school can keep your child totally safe on their screens during the school day.  Remember that your children can access social media and other questionable sites on their laptops; they can also bypass the school wifi firewall simply by using the hot spot on their smartphones. It is impossible for a school to completely safeguard inquisitive kids.
  6. The gamification of education is not best for true learning.  Combining screen play with academics is tricky. Kids will always gravitate to low effort, high reward activities, so when math or spelling “looks” like a videogame, chances are the hard work of deep learning is not being accomplished. What may seem like an immersion in the subject matter is actually a compulsion loop being fueled by a dopamine release in their brains. They may be able to memorize some math facts on their math game but are we setting them up to depend on a game to learn?  Furthermore, we are still in the experimental phases with educational software and technology; some experts point out that edtech research is not evidenced based and lacks proven outcomes.
  7. Classroom conversation among peers and teachers is essential. Today’s teachers are telling us that deep debates and rich conversations are no longer as commonplace in the classroom as they once were, which means we’ve lost a powerful educational component that benefits a student’s social skill development. Many teachers recognize that tone of voice and body gestures can be even more important than the actual words spoken, and so today’s online collaborations will never be as beneficial as in-person group collaborations, conversations and discussions.
  8. Screen use changes your child’s behavior.  According to many doctors, stimulating screen activities actually “rewire” your child’s brain. The brain adapts to accommodate this unnatural digital stimulation, and the change is being linked to the 53 percent increase in ADHD symptoms over the last 10 years. Shockingly, one in five high school boys is now being diagnosed with hyperactivity. Traditionally ADHD is diagnosed by age 3, so the question we must consider is, are all these new diagnoses really ADHD, or are they evidence of what Dr. John Ratey, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, calls “Acquired ADHD”? Many parents are finding that this new condition is able to be reversed by eliminating screen overuse.
  9. Digital citizenship programs don’t prepare kids to use media well. The best “digital citizens” have caring parents who know what their kids are really doing online and who spend time in frequent, meaningful conversations about digital media issues. These digital conversations begin early and continue throughout high school and college. While digital citizenship programs are still necessary, they  will never replace the parents’ job of guiding and managing their child’s screen life.
  10. Classroom screens are not one size fits all. Teachers and schools can over-rely on the unmet promises of classroom tech, and screens will never be able to replace the critical student-teacher relationship.  Parents know what is best for their children, as well as their strengths and weaknesses. Do they have struggle with focus? Are they introverted or lack social confidence? Are they patient?  Are they self-motivated and hard-working? Ask questions to understand how your child uses screens in the classroom, then make an effort to work with your children’s teachers to craft a screen plan that fits their learning needs.

Technology can easily turn into the toughest educational distraction, preventing children from being able to complete schoolwork, whether that’s a math problem or an entire paper. In next week’s blog, we will cover tips for how to balance your child’s screen use during the school week. But for now, suffice it to say, sometimes taking away the phone and turning off the Wi-Fi will help students focus on the task at hand. Do not let the latest screen use trends derail your teens from reaching their full social and academic potential.

Melanie Hempe, BSN, is the founder of ScreenStrong, an organization that empowers parents to help their children gain the benefits of screen media without the toxic consequences of overuse that threaten healthy mental and physical development. The ScreenStrong Solution promotes a strong parenting style that proactively replaces harmful screen use with healthy activities, life skills development, and family connection. This article was originally published on