Screen Time and Kids: Three Questions We Should Also be Asking

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

I wrote this column for our local newspaper, The Democrat Tribune. They do not have an online version of their paper, so I am posting it here. Thanks for reading! -Matt

During these recent no school days due to inclement weather, it was hard to keep our own kids occupied, especially when it was bitterly cold. Our son even commented, “Are we getting too much screen time?” We assured him that once the weather warmed up, they would be able to get back outside and play.

The advent of the Internet along with screens becoming mobile – tablets, smartphones, laptops – has brought both advantages and challenges to our lives. On the plus side, we can communicate with anyone in the world at any time through video and text in addition to a phone call. Being able to see and talk with a family member or friend many miles away through Facetime or Skype has brought our world closer together.

However, these benefits are soon taken for granted, and then we start thinking about all of the disadvantages of a constant connection. For example, if our smartphones are always on, when can we truly take a break? In the case of our children, all of the digital media options they now have in the form of online gaming, social media, and streaming shows can occupy a young person’s life like never before.

In the midst of this challenge, one question that comes up frequently is: how much screen time is too much for kids? The American Academy of Pediatrics used to recommend no more than two hours a day. Recently they have replaced this rule with more differentiated guidelines for families (which you can find here: For example, young children should have less screen time than older kids and the content they watch should be high quality and educational.

I also believe It is not just about how much time. What kids are doing with screens? How are they engaged with what’s online? Why do they choose to watch and interact with a game, app or program? Next are my reflections on each question.

  • What are kids experiencing on a screen? Kids’ minds are at different developmental stages based on age and readiness. If you have concerns about what they are seeing, they are likely valid. Follow the ratings and remind yourself that you are the parent; you get to make final decisions as long as they live under your roof. If there isn’t a rating, engage in the content with them and make a decision, together if possible.
  • How are kids engaged on a screen? There’s a difference between watching a continuous stream of unfiltered YouTube videos and learning how to speak another language with Duolingo. We as parents can help our kids self-monitor what they consume by discussing these differences and building an understanding of the limitations and possibilities of time spent on a screen.
  • Why are kids choosing to be on a screen? In my own personal experience, too often I will reach for my smartphone out of habit or because I am bored. My guess is you have had this awareness too. Talking about this with our kids can set up a productive conversation about our habits and what we are choosing to give up when we go online. It’s not about a choice being bad or good but about understanding that we have choices.

A more nuanced approach to raising our kids in a world of screens is more complex than a hard-and-fast rule like “No more than two hours a day.” Yet there is also opportunity in engaging with our kids in conversation about this new connected world. We can learn together what it means to live a better life both online and offline.

What I'm Thinking

Having a Social Media Presence = Being an Active Citizen

I know about the negatives regarding social media, the detriments of being “always on”. We are distracted; we sometimes prioritize our online connections over our physical ones; we become accustomed to responding to our messages and other habit-building notifications. I don’t disagree with the sentiments…in theory. Yet social media and online interactions are where so many of our conversations now take place. To not be online gives us freedom from distraction. But when we are never on, we are absent from the larger discussion about our community and our society.

Thinking locally, our small town has an active Facebook page. People post for many reasons. Lost cat? Post the pic. Event coming up next week? Let us know the date. If someone has something to sell or donate, it is likely someone will respond with interest or, at the very least, tag another person who might be interested. Being present on social media with intentional communities such as my town’s Facebook page seems to have little downside. I might feel more connected to locals because we have more opportunities to connect, period.

Going global, the flood of information on Facebook, Instagram, and especially Twitter can be overwhelming. (Sorry Snapchat; I have yet to figure you out, and by the time I do, the kids will have moved on to the next social media.) These outlets do provide tools to stem the flow of the posts, retweets, and updates. For example, I use Twitter lists to control the feed of information around specific topics. My favorite list right now is Reliable Media Sources, a list I have built containing over 250 news outlets, journalists, and credible individuals who post links and thoughts that I can count on for accuracy.

My philosophy right now in being connected is I need to have one foot in the physical world and the other in the digital. I’ll still read the Sunday paper, but I will augment that print experience with my curated online connections. The importance of meeting people face-to-face has not diminished in my mind…yet who might I have not met had I not been active on Twitter or Facebook? Being a member of a community has been redefined. Being connected is a much more complex endeavor. It is not enough to exist only in one world or the other. The best approach for citizenship in the modern world is an integrated one.


Theory and Practice

Social Identities

I teach only the truth – but that shouldn’t make you believe it. – Martin Fischer

Source: Sean MacEntee via Flickr (
Source: Sean MacEntee via Flickr

Why Your Customers’ Social Identities Matter by Guy Champniss, Hugh N. Wilson, and Emma K. Macdonald (Harvard Business Review, January/February 2015)

Three business professors and researchers explain the importance of social identities. This concept can be defined as the personas people take on and the decisions they make based on the community or group in which they are associated with or represented by at that time. When a social context changes – for example, a couple of famillies installing solar panels in a community – this action influences other people’s behaviors that reside in this neighborhood (they are more likely to buy solar panels, too).

This phenomena relates to all communities and groups, online and otherwise. Individual interviews about how a person feels about a product or service does not necessarily equate to decisions they might make in a different context or circumstance. Also, people often have multiple social identities, especially on social media. For instance, I am more apt to share my personal life on Facebook, because my social context in this forum is friends and family. On Twitter, you see a more professional side of me.

The authors of this article note how businesses tap into this need to belong to a group. As an example, the unique look of the Toyota Prius provides a visual association with environmental awareness. There are assumptions made about people who drive a Prius. People adopt social identities on Twitter and Facebook as well. Their bios, the hashtags they use, and the posts they share all help to identify and define that person’s beliefs and dispositions.

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably know that I am highly interested in literacy, technology, and leadership, and the connection between the three in today’s schools. It is not surprising that the vast majority of people who I interact with online also have interests in one or more of these areas. Subsequently, learning potential is increased within my personal learning network. But we are also more likely to feed into each other’s already self-determined beliefs.

Social identities are more than a lens for understanding customers’ current social behavior.

Rigor and Grit by Dean Shareski and Jon Samuelson (Techlandia Podcast, February 9, 2015)

The hosts of Techlandia invited Dean Shareski, community manager of Discovery Education, to their podcast. Dean and the group ranted about a number of words and phrases that permeate the education lexicon, such as “future ready” and “rigor”. Their biggest concern is how these terms are not context-specific. Educators latch onto them and expound their virtues in tweets and posts. But are these sound bytes relevant to the students we have today?

Twitter’s Facebook envy by J.J. McCorvey and Nicole LaPorte (Fast Company, February 2015)

Twitter executives have always preferred that you not compare their company to Facebook.

So reports these columnists about the rise of Twitter and its foreseeable future. However, Twitter has shown a desire to adopt some of Facebook’s functions, such as notifications of popular tweets. “Twitter needs to be relevant to its users around the clock, rather than solely when news is breaking.” This is a shift from the real-time information feed that Twitter is best known for. McCorvey and LaPorte note that both social media giants have found reasons to emulate one another.

Dick Costolo Thinks It’s O.K. To Never Tweet by Farhad Manjoo (The New York Times Magazine, February 25, 2015)

The CEO of Twitter responds to questions about Twitter’s future. The title of this article references the discrepancy between active and inactive users. Costello addresses this, noting that, “everyone wants to know and stay up-to-date on what’s happening in their world and be connected and know what’s going on. That’s what Twitter provides. So I think that irrespective of whether you want to tweet, everyone can get value out of Twitter right away.”

What’s trending…

People identify themselves with others based on shared beliefs and interests. The Internet, and social media specifically, have expanded these offerings. And like organizations that congregate in person, the purpose and context discovered through hashtags, Facebook groups, and online communities of practice can motivate participants toward greater levels of learning and influence.

Yet those same benefits can also create limits on a group’s thinking. When we associate ourselves with a mission or organization, we tend to own those beliefs in a personal way. So what happens when certain aspects of the group’s practices are called into question? People tend to defend their beliefs, primarily because their identities with the group are an extension of themselves.

This can happen even when evidence points otherwise. I am a prime example. When we introduced Evernote as a digital portfolio tool in my school, I was initially blind to the limitations of this software for this purpose. Only through listening to others outside of my immediate network, such as in the Google+ Community I created on the topic, did I see different possibilities. We are now exploring FreshGrade as a better option for portfolios.

When we find ourselves struggling with a principle of a community that we belong to, here are some suggestions that might help:

  • Invite divergent thinkers into the group, and encourage respectful discourse.
  • Ask thoughtful questions that do not feed back into a group’s existing beliefs.
  • Read widely. Even though I am an educator, I find that publications such as Harvard Business Review and Fast Company give me a better perspective.
  • Write about what you read and question on a blog, sharing your struggles and inviting conversation in the comments.
  • Leave a group for a while, or permanently, acknowledging the need to rethink your beliefs in order to find time for other pursuits.
  • If leaving a group is not an option, take Dick Costolo’s advice and stop posting. Maybe just read what others are sharing and reflect.

How do you gain perspective in the social groups you associate yourself with, both online and offline? Please share in the comments. 😉

Theory and Practice

The Networking, Ever-Present, Highly Connected School Leader


No jail cell or straight jacket could hold him! He shucked off handcuffs as easily as gloves. – Sid Fleischman (Escape! The Story of the Great Houdini)

Challenges and Successes: Online Communities of Practice by Ann Ware (Ed Tech: Focus on K-12, Winter 2015)

The role of the school leader has always been an isolating position. Ware observes this, noting that we often “work autonomously and feel geographically isolated”. She strongly recommends Google+ Communities as a tool of choice for the busy educator looking to better connect with other professionals. Ware offers clear guidelines for these third spaces for learning:

  • The community of practice should acknowledge the needs and interests highlighted by members.
  • Social media should be leveraged to support collaboration.
  • One member should be appointed as the community of practice leader.

She also suggests that communities of practice regularly self-assess the impact they are having on the participants, through such measures as analytics and polls.

The Authenticity Paradox: Why feeling like a fake can be a sign of growth by Herminia Ibarra (Harvard Business Review, January/February 2015)

Authenticity is defined in this article as “an original, not a copy”. This concept is a hot topic in many discussions about management. It has become “the gold standard of leadership”, primarily because it describes that agreement between leaders being open about their abilities and still maintaining authority within their organization. Social media is but one area in which this balancing act takes place.

By viewing ourselves as works in progress and evolving our professional identities through trial and error, we can develop a personal style that feels right to us and suits our organizations’ changing needs.

There seems to be little divide between our in-person interactions and how we represent ourselves online. The lines are blurry because so much of what we share about ourselves now is broadcasted for the world to see. “How we present ourselves – not just as executives but as people, with quirks and broader interests – has become an important aspect of leadership.”

Why a Great Principal Burned Out – and What Might Have Helped by Ellie Herman (Gatsby in L.A., July 11, 2014)

A writing teacher grieves over the departure of a principal and a friend who, by all accounts, was a very effective school leader in his three year tenure with the Los Angeles Public School System. She asked the question: Why would such a talented principal choose to leave the job? Here is what he had to share:

What’s so hard is keeping yourself open to 600-plus students, over 100 adults on campus, the parents, the community…there’s no rest, there’s no stop. How many things can happen in a day? At the end of every day I’ve heard six things that I’m not okay with, a kid who stabbed another kid with a pencil, a parent who called a kid out of class and hit him with an extension cord, I hated sending kids out on a 5150 [mental illness designation].

This example of extreme and constant stress led to the principal’s decision to go back to the classroom. Herman acknowledges as much, and also concludes by asking: “When are we going to stop demanding accountability without also demanding sustainable working conditions?”

Stop Checking Email So Often by Kostadin Kushlev and Elizabeth W. Dunn (New York Times, January 9, 2015)

Is email overload bad for you?

“Hmmm” says this principal, who always seems to have 20-30 messages floating in his own inbox. Kushlev and Dunn take a different approach to the usual blaming of email itself, and instead wonder whether it is the frequency in which we check email that is the culprit. In a study they conducted, professionals were separated into two groups. One group was instructed to check their email as frequently as possible. The other group could only check their email three times a day.

The results: Groups that checked their email as much as possible reported higher levels of stress compared to the restricted email group. Those professionals that were part of the limited email rules reported reductions in stress similar to people who applied stress-reduction techniques, such as deep breathing.

Swan Song (Techlandia Podcast #73, September 10, 2014)

Hosts Curt Rees, Allison Anderson, and Jon Samuelson talk with Shawn White about his teaching and writing experience on their weekly podcast. This entry is titled “Swan Song” because both Curt and Allison bid farewell to Techlandia, citing a need to find more balance between their professional and personal lives. Curt brought this topic into focus, asking each educator to describe their perfect Saturday. Common threads included time with family and personal interests.

You can listen to the entire podcast here:

Taking a step back…

EscapeToday’s post is especially relevant for the topic. Yesterday (Saturday) is the day I usually put my final thoughts together and then publish. However, I had promised my son that we would visit the Houdini exhibit at an historical museum in Appleton, Wisconsin. We have been reading the biography Escape! The Story of the Great Houdini by Sid Fleischman. He was excited to view some of the artifacts we have read about first hand. How could I say no?

My son attempts to pick a lock at the Houdini exhibit, using the hidden key he found in a crevice.

We had a lot of fun exploring the museum, picking locks and discovering more about the man’s life. It is an interesting title for the book (Escape!). It references more than just Houdini’s amazing exploits. Growing up, he had to escape abject poverty. As a fledgling magician, it took him years and countless failures to break free of preconceived notions of his profession, often viewed as no more than a circus sideshow. Houdini also struggled with his own ego, particularly with the desire to push boundaries and to be recognized as the best.

As school leaders, we also deal with these elements – poverty, failure, striving for success – on a daily basis. Maybe not to the degree that Houdini experienced, but they are certainly present in our professional and personal lives. We have an endless stream of emails to check, student issues to sort out, and images of our school and ourselves to uphold. I know exactly how that L.A. principal felt when he stated “there is no rest, no stop”.

Yet, some of these very connections that we form both in person and online can also help us get off “admin island”. Positions of school leadership can be very isolating, much more so than any other areas in education. We need all the help we can get. For me, I am so thankful for the communities of practice I am a part of on Google+ and Voxer. The people that make up these learning communities provide both perspective and support. They also allow me to be authentic, shedding some of my principal persona and just be real. I have even started podcasting with other school leaders, to explore ways to find balance.

Do I need help, or can I break free myself?
Do I need help, or can I break free myself?

So while these positions can be overwhelming at times, I don’t want to escape from the bindings that are both a part of the job and self-imposed. Yes, I certainly need to find time for myself, my family and friends. If I am always connected, have I ever left the office? I am learning that the key to balance is prioritizing what’s most important, because when I say yes to one thing, I am saying no to something else.

Theory and Practice

New Literacies

A student uses the app Canva to create a visual report about a human body system.
A student uses the app Canva to create a visual report about a human body system.

We were never born to read. – Maryanne Wolf

Creating Digital Authors by Melody Zoch, Brooke Langston-DeMott, and Melissa Adams-Budde (Phi Delta Kappan, November 2014)

Three literacy education professors see opportunities that technology can afford in today’s classrooms. They draw on others’ work in defining new literacies:

New ways of reading and writing made available by technology, as well as the competencies associated with them, such as design, navigation, and collaboration.

The authors conducted research in elementary classrooms, creating digital writing camps for students. They documented several benefits to infusing technology into writing. One example is some students were viewed as technology experts. Although they had not been recognized as strong writers in the past, these students saw themselves as successful in their roles of helping peers translate ideas into publish-ready pieces. Subsequently, teacher instruction was not always necessary.

Another benefit realized during this study was the motivation students displayed for learning with technology. One student noted that using the computer “helped me feel more creative”. Another student liked the fact that writing in a digital format was a fresh alternative to their school experiences:

I think I’m just bored of writing with paper and pencil because it’s what I always use.

Both students and researchers also noted how technology allows for mistakes to be made while writing, supporting the iterative nature of this discipline. The authors conclude their article by noting that “teachers don’t need to be technology experts to do this; students are quite motivated to learn through exploration and collaboration. They acutally might learn best this way.”

From Literacy to Literacies by Itoco Garcia (Reading Today, January/February 2015)

The International Reading Association has changed their name to the International Literacy Association, or ILA. Garcia finds this shift is about more than just technology. “Conceptions of literacy are rooted in language and culture and have been used to distinguish between classes and deny or confer opportunity since Roman times.” Equitable access to powerful instruction is a part of this shift as much as anything else.

To be clear, “ILA defines literacy as the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute, and communicate using visual, audible, and digital materials across all disciplines and in any context.” Garcia takes special note of the opportunities that can be provided for students with a broader definition of literacy. When teachers understand how different cultures may interact and utilize tools for reading and writing, what it means to be literate is redefined.

Level Up with Multimodal Composition in Social Studies by Bridget Dalton (The Reading Teacher, Dec 2014/Jan2015)

This associate professor worked in tandem with a classroom of primarily Spanish-English emergent bilinguals. They set out to clear up a misconception with their students, that writing is only something you do in schools.

The educators took a writing project already in place and redesigned it.  Three questions were asked before starting this project:

1. What’s the role? (multimodal designers)

2. What’s the task? (an eBook anthology on their native Colorado)

3. What’s the tool? (Book Creator)

The author notes that pedagogy came first, and then the tools. This helped the class “understand the larger purpose and context before starting the process”, as well as to “position the students as experts”.

Principal PD (2)

The Classroom Blog: Enhancing Critical Thinking, Substantive Discussion, and Appropriate Online Interaction by Shannon Baldino (Voices from the Middle, December 2014)

A high school English teacher explores the ups and downs of implementing blogging in her classroom. Baldino’s goal was to find a way to make homework more purposeful, while at the same time teaching her students digital citizenship skills. What she found was the work involved in monitoring student writing was no less when compared to just pencil and paper. However, the benefits of student engagement, more writing produced, and deeper learning made the experience worth it.

Baldino recognized that the language used in online spaces was not always conducive to productive conversations. Therefore, she explicitly taught her students how to communicate in respectful ways with peers in the comments. Students expressed appreciation for her methods. As one student noted:

Blogging made me more conscious and aware of other people’s feelings online, where it is especially hard to understand others.

The teacher was also creative in the activities she assigned to her students. For example, she wondered aloud if Paul Revere’s ride might have benefited from having access to the social media tool Twitter. The follow-up posts and comments not only deepened the students’ learning about this topic, but also gave them a chance to apply their digital citizenship skills within a meaningful context.

Why Your Students Forgot Everything On Your PowerPoint Slides by Mary Jo Madda (edSurge, January 19, 2015)

In this accessible article, Madda highlights the drawbacks of teachers just throwing their notes on slides to read aloud for a future lecture. First, learners cannot mentally handle the cognitive load of both text and auditory information with dexterity. Instead, Madda suggests keeping slides text-based or not at all to ensure learning is transferred to students:

The duplicated pieces of information–spoken and written–don’t positively reinforce one another; instead, the two effectively flood students’ abilities to handle the information.

The author also notes the benefits of keeping things strictly visual in slideshows, with accompanying verbal explanations. “Mixing visual cues with auditory explanations (in math and science classrooms, in particular) are essential and effective.” If teachers choose this method with visuals, it is also important that the speaking and listening resembles a dialogue.

Delivering content in a conversational tone will increase learning.

Defining literacy today…

As I was preparing my slides for our staff professional development day, I started to realize that it was getting a bit wordy. Although the topic was about creativity and writing, the quotes I was including from profound educational thinkers took up a whole slide each. My follow up questions were falling flat.

In a spark of ingenuinity, my wife had an idea for keeping things simple. She suggested listing quotes from books of well-known authors, and then having the staff try to guess the source. The idea would be that through recognizing authors’ voices, we might better assess how well we can recognize our own students’ voices in their writing. Of course, it went over very well.

Screen Shot 2015-01-24 at 7.16.25 PM

I am a novice as I write about new literacies. There is much I have to learn. What I do know at this time is literacy is about more than text. That genie is not going back into the bottle. The definition of literacy has expanded at a similar rate as technology. New ways of communicating are being developed as we speak (or read?). Concepts such as blogging and digital citizenship have become critical communication skills in a short amount of time.

So it begs the question: If schools are not using these tools during instruction, are they depriving students of necessary global and cultural learning experiences? However, if the extent of technology integration is a basic slide show that simply regurgitates facts, would we be better off without these digital tools? I am going to continue to ponder these questions as I build a better understanding of literacy in the 21st century.