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Saturday, March 2, 2024
March 2, 2024

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Educators share 5 ways to confront kids’ screen time


SEATTLE — The average teen today spends one-quarter of the day with their eyes locked on a screen.

Most adults who work with children can rattle off a long list of reasons about why that’s hurting kids. Incessant screen time has been linked to problems with communication, self-esteem and learning. Many schools and districts have issued no-device policies to help combat cellphone use.

But what does it really take to have kids reevaluate their relationships with technology? Is there a good way to go about cutting a teen’s screen time?

We asked some experts during a recent online conversation hosted by The Seattle Times Education Lab. The panelists included Emily Cherkin, a screen time consultant and former middle school teacher, along with two administrators who oversee device bans for students: William Jackson, the principal at Seattle’s Nathan Hale High School, and Kris Hagel, the executive director for digital learning at the Peninsula School District in Gig Harbor.

Here are five takeaways from the discussion.

Don’t make it a power struggle

Asking a kid to cut back on cellphone or device use is likely to spark conflict, said Jackson and Hagel. That can be for a range of reasons, including that kids’ developing brains are especially vulnerable to the stimuli they get from phones. They might not fully understand the consequences.

Approach the conversation with a sense of curiosity and from a place of love, the panelists said. Jackson and Hagel said they instituted their device bans after a number of discussions with everyone in their school communities. Ultimately, it was a decision for the mental health of students.

“When we returned in the fall [from the pandemic], it was a completely different tenor,” said Jackson. “Teachers found it hard to engage students in learning.”

Rather than telling a child they have an addiction, try framing the discussion as one of balance, said Hagel. Just as there are balanced meals, there are balanced ways to spend your time, he said.

The most important approach is not going overboard.

“We can’t start from a place of surveillance and monitoring and then expect that we’re going to build a healthy relationship — especially with a teenager,” said Cherkin. “That’s when they get a burner phone.”

It’s an adult problem, too

The way adults use devices will affect the children they are closest with, panelists said. It’s not just kids who are addicted to their devices.

During a parent meeting, Hagel collected phones from adults and placed them in a basket on the opposite side of the room, leaving them there until the meeting was over.

“And as the phones went off you could just see them getting uncomfortable and jittery,” said Hagel. “The kids are the same way.”

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Adults can also help cut back exposure to screen time by not getting smartphones for their children until they’re older, said Cherkin.

“I’m a big fan of the traditional flip phone. The more delay the better,” she said.

Don’t let your kids (or yourself) sleep in the same room as a smartphone

Even before the Peninsula district instituted its ban, Hagel warned against sharing a bed with phones. More than anything, it can disrupt sleep and cause kids to not get a good night’s rest, he said.

You can take baby steps toward this goal, said Cherkin. If you already charge your kid’s phone in your room, move all the devices off the nightstand and across the room, or exile all the phones to the hallway.

Device-free policies and efforts to manage screen time are not foolproof

Jackson and Hagel said they faced resistance and complications while instituting policies.

In the Peninsula School District, students still ask to go to the bathroom so they can tap out a text, or pull out a phone during class. And Jackson, in Seattle, had to have some challenging conversations with families about their views on the policy.

“Have grace for your students and have grace for yourself,” said Jackson.

Many parents concerned about screen time will also want to reach for tools that help moderate content or place a limit on screen time. Cherkin says these moderation controls are often imperfect and flag information inappropriately. Parents should be asking a different question, she said.

“Do we have a strong relationship with our kids and do we know how they’re spending time online?”

The kids eventually come around

In the Peninsula district and at Nathan Hale, administrators report students expressing gratitude for the device-free policies, saying it helped free them from a tie they didn’t realize they had to their phones.

Even in cases where students were not as sunny, they have reported better conversations with their classmates, said Hagel.