Research Review: Dangers of “screen time” vs. teaching computing skills

When I finally get a few minutes to casually scroll through my Facebook feed, typically I see several blog posts that discuss technology. Most of them are fear mongering blog posts on all the awful effects of technology. They speak to how we are ruining our children and adding negative social consequences for them.

Don’t get me wrong, I agree that there are negative affects of too much screen time. I also believe that these are articles are inciting widespread panic among mothers, typically not reaching the audience that needs to hear those messages, and often points out small snap shots of moms doing making “bad” choices with technology and their children. Oh the horror, don’t be like that mom! And if you see that mom’s silencing their children’s tantrums with technology… well you obviously know who to avoid for the next play date…

It’s especially difficult for educators to find the right balance. Public schools are scrambling each year to place more and more tech into their student’s hands. Most of the time this happens without training or guidance for the teacher responsible with implementation.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard, “We need to be preparing our students for the future with technology.” Well that’s great, but what does that look like? I do not actually think that our principals and superintendents know either. It probably is more typing skills and less hunting and pecking on iPads. It probably is more software development rather than learning to turn on the internet and play a game. It probably is more research skills and less Facebook posts. It probably is more computer assembly and less computer free time. (And as a side note, an elementary school teacher is not trained, nor should be expected to also have all these skills in their repertoire.)

Our society needs to find a balance, and we need to teach actual skills. Not just how to sit in front of a device for hours. Technology is not an evil thing that is coming to destroy your home. Everyone has the power to choose if, when, and how they use it. We need to stop fear mongering people and start teaching how to make technology a positive force in their home.

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Here are some reasons technology is critical for our students and children:

  • Basic computer skills are required for almost every job. Read this article by edutopia. Patsy Lanclos writes about what specific basic skills need to be taught to students.
  • While this is an opinion piece, Guy Hadas writes for the Los Angeles Times on the importance of teaching coding. “As Steve Jobs once put it: ‘Everybody in this country should learn to program a computer … because it teaches you how to think.'”
  • This article by Association for Computing Machinery, talks about the issues facing computing. They are quoted saying, “As schools have increasingly stepped up the need to integrate, use, and teach information technology, the distinctions have blurred between what is called computer science and what is, in fact, information technology literacy and the use of technology to support learning.” (I wish I could add a like button to this quote!) We need to stop putting a kid in front of a computer reading program and then say they’re being prepared for computer science.
  • This peer reviewed journal article from the Future of Children, speaks on the current state of our technology training and how we can do better. Shields and Behrman focus on both the concerns and the positives with technology in our classrooms.
  • Vanderbelt’s Center for Teaching published this article on how technology can enhance teaching. Read this one for specific examples.
  • Secure Edge’s network proposes ten reason why technology makes learning better in the classroom.

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Here are facts about the dangers of technology:

  • State Farm created a visual graphic on the facts of screen time with increased obesity and decreased sleep at night. They received their facts from national organizations and from a variety of sources.
  • Lauren Hale and Standford Guan found a casual correlation between the amount of screen time a child received and decreased quality of sleep among children and adolescents. This means that they can not prove that sleep lose is caused by devices. There is just a good chance it’s linked.
  • The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found a correlation between screen time and obesity.
  • NPR writes an article speaking on the rush to put iPads in front of students. Juana Summers argues that this can create a decrease in social skills while reviewing peer reviewed research.
  • The Harvard gazette interviews Steven Gortmaker on the negative side effects of too much screen time.

How to Find Balance

Technology is a tool. When we use it in our home like a tool for entertainment, work, communication, or solving problems, we are encouraging a healthy relationship with technology.

An important take away from my research was that research advocating for technology in education, did not advocate for gaming or socializing on technology. Those articles were all driven towards teaching technology skills. These are navigational skills (knowing how to find the appropriate sites and tools on the device), programing skills (building applications or tools on the device), and actual building the electrical components of the computer.

This means for the average family, most of our technology experiences in the home are simply using the technology. As we are trying to find a balance, we need to help teach children how to regulate technology usage. And like regulation of most great things, expect some tantrums through the learning process.

Educators also need to be aware of whether students are just using technology, or learning technology skills. There are several online curriculums that I have really loved teaching. However, we should not use these types of technology experiences as a substitute for actual teaching of computer skills.

If you are teacher looking for technology to help your students, check out here.

If you are parent looking for ways to help your teen learn computing skills, check out here.

If you are a district or group of educators looking to buy a curriculum for teaching computer skills, check out here.

If you are just a learner and want to read more on technology, check out here.

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Here are some tips to make technology a tool, not a crutch:

  1.  Make time for specific activities. If you schedule in homework and dinner time, don’t keep the TV on for those times. Help teach kids to focus on present. Schedule time for TV just like any other activity.
  2. Be careful about how much screen time you put in front of a toddler. Remember, toddlers typically aren’t ready for learning to regulate themselves yet. If a toddler gets their hands on a bag of chocolate, they might eat the whole thing. Same thing with electronics. They will probably try to binge on it.
  3. Consider setting a “bed time” for electronics. Many research articles point towards looking a screen at night harmful to sleep. I remember texting all night long as a teenager. Besides just missing sleep, I usually got into a fair amount of trouble at night.
  4. Make a list of things that kids can choose to do instead of use an electronic device. Keep it in a central location.
  5. Encourage kids to be active by being active as a family.
  6. Sit down and talk to children about how technology is a tool. Talk about the good things that it does, and the bad things that can happen when it used too much. Set some healthy goals together as a family.
  7. Consider removing electronics from bedrooms. This could reduce risking internet behaviors, and the amount of screen time at home.
  8. Try removing the “emotional value” of electronics. Instead of using them as a reward or punishment, continue using conversations that represent technology as a tool.
  9. Some parents advocate for not allowing their teenagers to have social media accounts. Social media can create a “fear of missing out” on fun and social opportunities. Make sure to communicate with children about appropriate use of social media. Cyber bullying is real problem within high school circles.
  10. Encourage kids to use imaginative play, use problem solving skills, make friends at public places, and find new games to add to the “list of things to do.”


If you are taking the time to read these articles, then you’re probably a great mom or educator. Parents and educators do not need another source telling them how they are messing up. When you see those technology articles pop up, just remember that you are in control. You can choose how your family or classroom interacts with technology, and everyone has a day where they need an iPad to distract! It’s okay! You have not broken your child. Keep working to find a balance and use technology as a tool in your home.

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