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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Excessive screen time linked to lower student test scores

Are children getting too much screen time?

That question is getting more scrutiny in the wake of recent national standardized tests that showed a decline in reading comprehension among fourth- and eighth-graders.

In Spokane and the rest of the nation, educators have noticed.

“In some ways these devices enhance learning,” said Lisa Laurier, a professor at Whitworth University who specializes in elementary education. “But sometimes the negatives outweigh the positives.”

One study found children ages 8 to 12 are spending an average of five hours a day looking at screens that have nothing to do with their schoolwork.

Laurier said she worries about the long-term effects of heavy screen time, such as the overstimulation of young minds by flashing images.

“You end up with children who seem distracted, who lose their ability to concentrate,” said Laurier, who also worries some school districts are over-reliant on tablets because federal grants make them cheaper than printed materials.

Meanwhile, local officials say they’re working hard to strike an instructional balance.

“Our district on the whole is very mindful of how we distribute these materials,” said Scott Kerwein, director of technology and information at Spokane Public Schools.

Kerwein, who also serves as a teacher counselor, said the addition of screens allows one group of students in a given classroom to work semi-independently while a teacher works one-on-one with other students.

“We know that tech is going to be part of student life now and moving forward,” said Brian Coddington, the district’s director of communications and public relations. “We’re trying to make sure that we help teachers find ways to be selective.”

Everyone agrees on two main points: screens are here to stay and children must be guided toward a balance.

Even as the National Assessment of Educational Progress – often called “the nation’s report card” – was released late last month, independent analysis showed some troubling trends.

The nonprofit Common Sense Media’s annual census of children’s media use, released the same week as the NAEP, found that 94 percent of English/language arts teachers surveyed said they used digital programs for core curriculum activities several times a month.

Using screens for class instruction and homework comes on top of the average of five hours a day.

That too raises a question about communication between parents and teachers: Do they compare notes? And do they have time to do so?

One thing is certain, according to the NAEP data: Locally and nationally, students have lost ground since the 2017 tests on both main reading content areas: literary experience, such as fiction analysis, and reading for information, such as finding evidence to support an argument.

Both grades declined significantly in both areas from 2017 to 2019, but the drop was larger for literary skills. In fact, eighth-graders perform worse now than they did in 2009 in literary experience.

An Education Week analysis of the NAEP data showed a relationship between high-screen and digital-device use and lower proficiency on the test.

For example, students who used digital devices for reading fewer than 30 minutes a day scored on average 8 scale points higher than those who used computers in language arts for longer periods of time.

These light digital users scored 26 scale points higher than the students who spent the longest reading periods on digital devices, four hours or more a day.

To put that into context, one year of school equals roughly 12 points on the NAEP’s 500-point scale.

However, according to Laurier, there’s even more to worry about as children spend hours in front of laptops, tablets and smartphones.

“What we’re seeing,” Laurier said, “is that the brain is starting to develop behaviors that look like ADHD.”

Flashing lights, on-screen movements and the constant shifting of images may contribute to greater distractions and loss of ability to concentrate.

And while the internet and videos offer opportunities to develop background on academic materials, annotation is more difficult on a screen.

“That limits kids to some extent … and comprehension is impaired,” Laurier said.