Beth Holland: Digging Into the Debate About Screen Time

Beth Holland

Originally published in the January/February 2020 issue of AC&E/Equity & Access

At CoSN, we believe that ALL students should have equitable access to devices, high-speed Internet, and the opportunity to use those tools to support their development as learners. However, in our advocacy for increased access and opportunity, we often confront a perplexing challenge: the proliferation of debate around screen time.

From a 2018 New York Times series describing how Silicon Valley elites enroll their own children in analog-only schools, to the ongoing calls for teachers to ban laptops, to the host of articles advocating for digital detox, screens – and by proxy, technology – have seemingly become everyone’s favorite tool to hate.

Except, based on my research into Digital Equity, I have found that we need to dig deeper into the debate. While many concerns about screen time are certainly warranted, there needs to be a more nuanced discussion about both students’ use of technology and the assumptions underlying many of the articles debating its merit.

The Assumptions of the Anti-Screen Debate A few weeks ago, a review in the Washington Post lamented the launch of Amazon’s new Kindle Kids Edition. Advertised as an e-reader for children, this tablet purportedly provides access to 1,000s of books without the distraction of games or videos. To frame his argument, the author lauds the tactile relationship between kids and books – from chewing on corners to proudly displaying “volumes of Harry Potter.”

While I do not disagree with his points, the entire premise for his debate against Kindle – or e-reading in general – relies on three assumptions:

  1. All children have ownership of physical books
  2. All children can access analog books, meaning that they are neurotypical and do not require features like text-to-speech or enlarged text
  3. All children have parents or mentors who have the literacy skills to provide reading support and guidance

As Matt Hiefield and I discussed in a recent article, debates about screen time are often framed from a position of privilege. They assume that other resources and opportunities exist. As another example, in New York Times editorial, Dr. Perri Strauss – national medical director of Reach Out and Read – explained the findings of a neuroscience study that compared the MRIs and screen time exposure of “47 healthy children ages 3 to 5, all from English-speaking households, mostly middle to upper-middle class.” In short, the study found that children with higher exposure to screen time had less developed brains. Though the headline should cause concern, the article does quote the study’s primary author, Dr. John S. Hutton, explaining that technology is not inherently bad. Further, the lack of brain development could be attributed as much to lack of experiences like reading, playing outside, and storytelling as exposure to screens.

And yet, a Digital Equity issue emerges once again

The article assumes that ALL children have access to the types of learning opportunities that promote brain development. If a child lives in a household that may not be able to provide these interactive experiences, then high-quality digital content could be part of a solution. Fifty years of Sesame Street and over two-decades of the Ready to Learn Initiative from the U.S. Department of Education serve as evidence of how screens and media can create opportunities for children in under-served communities.

Finally, consider the host of articles and individuals calling for bans of laptops and smartphones. They often assume that the technology is the catalyst for off-task behavior, that all students learn best in an analog-only environment, and that access can happen elsewhere. First, students have always been distracted by technology whether it be a pencil or a smartphone. Second, for education to be accessible to ALL students, then those same students must be provided with the tools and skills to develop as learners. Third, as illustrated by a recent study from Gallup, students who engaged in creative learning supported by transformative uses of technology were more likely to develop cognitive skills such as critical thinking and creative problem-solving. At the same time, students from under-resourced communities — i.e. those who most likely lack access to devices and high-speed Internet at home — were less likely to experience these learning opportunities. Therefore, banning screens could lead to greater inequity from a number of perspectives.


Though often framed as an either/or debate, screen time should instead be framed as an opportunity to consider the benefits of both the digital and the analog worlds. To do this requires consideration of what Lisa Guernsey refers to as the 3Cs: Content, Context, and Child. Within this framework, we need to ask: what is the quality of the content and is it accessible? What is the social context in which the technology is being used? And most important, what do we know about the child?

Every individual requires a unique set of tools in order to best learn and develop. As adults and educators, our responsibility is to help our children and students determine what works best for them. Instead of simply debating screen time, we need to take a more nuanced approach and consider how these same tools might create previously inconceivable opportunities for learning.

The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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