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SCREEN TIME: Schools, parents ask how much is too much?

Schools, parents ask how much is too much?

‘Brains are being wired a little differently’

STUDENTS ABBY DeGolier, left, and Hailie Holm work in the zSpace learning lab during teacher Tom Berquist’s science class at Columbia Falls Junior High in this 2018 file photo. zSpace uses augmented and virtual reality technology to create an interactive experience using a desktop computer. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake file)

By KIANNA GARDNER | June 16, 2019

Joe Boyle, a psychiatrist with The Newman Center in Kalispell, said 10 years from now people may look back at technology — especially in the education system — like they did the cigarette industry after realizing smoking isn’t cool or healthy, with regret for making something potentially ruinous so mainstream.

“Smoking was once seen as harmless and even good on a social level and it’s come to be found that it’s not as good as it seems. We have that analogy and I think it’s an apt one,” Boyle said.

Technology is ubiquitous. From computers and TVs to tablets and cellphones, it is almost impossible to avoid screen time in our homes, our workplaces and now, in our schools.

Children across the United States, including those in Flathead County, are being exposed to technology and screen time beginning in elementary school until they graduate high school — a time span researchers say is crucial for the brain’s development.

Charley Jones, a youth and family therapist at The Newman Center, which specializes in behavioral health issues, added that “technology gives us very instant responses and feedback and what research is showing is that’s starting to cause kids anxiety.

“Technology is kind of taking away the critical thinking process when solving problems, so doing basic things like calculating distances or measuring things can create an anxious state,” Jones said.

In addition to anxiety, Jones and Boyle say research is showing that too much screen time can lead to mood and sleep dysregulation, inability to control emotions, lack of social development and more. They say society’s natural draw to phones, computers and other technology is widely considered an addiction.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends for preschool children ages 2 to 5 that screen time be limited to just one hour a day of high-quality programming. While there are no specific time limits identified for children ages 5 and up, Boyle said current research is showing that age range should only log between two and three hours per day — a time-frame that experts estimate most youth are surpassing on a daily basis.

“If that is the recommended limit, I would wager that some students hit that screen time before they even get to school some days,” said Laurie Barron, superintendent of Evergreen schools.

AFTER SPEAKING with multiple school officials throughout the Flathead Valley, it is unclear whether or not children are falling within those recommended limits during school hours. Representatives from Columbia Falls, Glacier, West Valley, Whitefish and Evergreen schools say that while they estimate students are falling within that time budget, none have an actual measuring and monitoring system in place. This is partially in order to allow teachers creative flexibility with their curriculum since some use more technology more than others and they don’t want to micro-manage.

Superintendents, principals, technology specialists and others also say the responsibility of limiting screen time is one that should be shared with parents, the students themselves and other stakeholders.

And those decisions about when and how to limit screen time and who should be the one to determine that, is a balancing act Boyle describes as an ongoing “clash of belief systems.

“Many believe technology is harmless and many believe it can cause harm, so the answer is probably somewhere in the middle. But as far as screen time in schools, the benefits are probably significantly less than commonly perceived,” Boyle said. “The common perception these days is that people equate computers with intelligence, and I disagree with that.”

Emerging research showing excessive screen time can be harmful to children in their developing stages — much like the cigarette industry that never went away — technology appears to be here for the long haul. “The reality of it is, the world we live in is that we are more technology- rich,” said Kramer Wilson, a computer science teacher at Kalispell Middle School. “Screen time is just increasing everywhere, so I think having an overall awareness by everyone, including parents, kids and teachers, that screen time can have negative effects is important.” And not all technology is bad. Flathead County schools are using systems to monitor cyberbullying and to detect patterns in conversations that may be indicative of suicidal behavior. They are using it to hold teachers and students accountable for turning in and grading assignments on time, streamlining conversations and more.

While it certainly has its benefits, experts say, children must be taught how to use it responsibly and furthermore, schools need to introduce technology strictly as a means for enhancing education, not as a way to simply keep up with the advances.

THE GENERATION of children currently navigating the education system is known as Generation Z and fall between the ages of 3 and 25. They are defined as a generation shaped by smartphones, social media and internet availability beginning at a young age.

Jones said it’s a generation whose “brains are being wired a little differently.”

As one of the first generations raised almost completely immersed in technology, researchers are still analyzing all the impacts excessive screen time has on a developing brain. But while society gauges the potential repercussions, penmanship is still being replaced by keyboarding. Over the last decade or so, schools from Kalispell to Evergreen and Whitefish and Columbia Falls have, either through technology or portions of general levies, grants or other means, phased in various forms of technology.

Most schools in the Flathead are “Google schools” in that students use gmail and other Google platforms for communicating with teachers and turning in assignments. Officials say this is adding a level of accountability for all parties involved — teachers must grade assignments on time, children have no excuse to not ask a question at just about any time and parents can see what is due and hold their kids to deadlines. Schools have also turned to Chromebook laptops that are easily maneuverable from classroom to classroom in carts and are “ruggedized” as described by Dave Wick, principal of Columbia Falls Junior High, who said it is important when buying technology to “know one’s audience.” In some facilities, specific technology teams exist to help gauge what technology is needed and how they plan on introducing it to the schools.

“Our primary focus is basic inventory of technology in the building, identifying needs we might have in that area and then coming up with an idea of how we might fund and implement that new technology,” said Andy Fors, assistant principal at Glacier High School. “Our technology team looks at exactly what we might need in what parts of the school and for what grades.”

MOST TECHNOLOGY funds acquired, either through levies, grants or other means, go toward simple upkeep of laptops, interactive teaching screens and more, according to many school officials. As classroom sizes swell, many say keeping up with the quantities of technology needed is a struggle in itself. “These last couple years the funds haven’t been able to keep up with the growth of the school so we’ve been really trying to scrape in trying to keep our technology up to date,” said Mark Wilson, an information technology specialist for West Valley School District. “We aren’t too bad in the realm of being up-to-date, but we are falling behind.”

Wilson said West Valley, like many other schools, has chosen to implement Chromebook laptops into classrooms. He said laptops allow students and staff to “work smarter, not harder” and are cost-effective. However, he said the first Chromebooks purchased by the school are about five years old and although he would like to add four or five more carts to be shared throughout the school, he added that he will be lucky to get one this year, should the budget allow it.

Evergreen Middle School also has the laptops and on the other hand, is considered a one-to-one district for those in third through eighth grades. Barron said the status was achieved gradually over the past six or so years. She considers the Evergreen district to be “very technologically advanced.” Barron said a goal for the Chromebooks and other technology is to teach kids a wide variety of platforms on which to “build content”— ultimately preparing students for the future. “One of the biggest things we look at is ‘can this technology enhance the learning?’” Wick said. “The acronym we use is RAT — replace, amplify, transform.”

The push for technology to be used only as an educational tool is shared by many in the Flathead.

AND, AS Chromebooks and other technology slowly works its way into classrooms, so has the concept of “digital citizenship,” which teaches students how to responsibly and appropriately use social media and other online platforms.

“You can’t in education today put this technology in the kids’ hands and not have any obligation to teach some responsibility for that,” Barron noted.

Digital citizenry is a mandatory course for many students throughout Flathead County. It covers a wide variety of topics from smart social media use and proper communication via the internet to how to research effectively and the harms of too much screen time.

However, in order to properly balance screen time, one must know how much time they spend looking at a screen. And screen time doesn’t begin and end at school, but rather in one’s home.

Those in the education system have always acted as a liaison of sorts between parents and children, monitoring things closely that guardians otherwise wouldn’t be able to keep an eye on themselves.

A parent whose child attends West Valley School, commented that “as parents we feel we need to limit screen time at home. But if the schools are using it, how much screen time do we know [the students] are getting [to use at home]?”

CASEY FIRESTONE doesn’t allow his two sons who attend Glacier High School to have cellphones and jokes that although they may resent him from time to time because of it, there have been moments in their lives when they recognize the benefits of it.

For example, Firestone said his oldest son’s recent experience at senior prom was a fleeting one. His son returned home fairly soon after departing the house that night and proceeded to tell his parents that all the students were standing around and staring at their cellphones instead of dancing or socializing.

“Kids are all on their phones all the time and their computers and whatnot and it’s changed our society so much that they don’t know how to build appropriate relationships anymore,” Firestone said. “Everything they do is online.”

Lack of social skills is just one of many side-effects from too much screen time. Firestone said he has also noticed his children’s desire for instant gratification, which is something Boyle and Jones believe can stem from too much interactive screen time.

“My youngest is slowly learning how to drive a car and sometimes it can be a painful venture because he thinks this skill should just come to him instantly,” Firestone said.

Firestone is one of many parents who have voiced their concerns at school board meetings and in other settings.

Ryan Hunter of Kalispell has a child at Hedges Elementary. He said there are some instances, such as when the kids watch an engaging science video, is acceptable. However, he said for the most part he and his wife, who is a teacher, are skeptical of technology in classrooms.

“Children learn by doing and technological tools are often a poor substitute for real hands-on experiences,” Hunter said. “Research often shows that adding technology to the classroom does not increase learning and often detracts from learning. I do think it depends on the specific context, though, so some limited technological tools can make sense.”

School officials say many incoming teachers’ curricula often cater to the technology industry and they want to be able to provide that. And allowing teachers creative freedom with their lessons makes it a challenge to monitor screen time.

Administrators also say pressure to implement technology and certain courses at an earlier age, such as keyboarding, is coming from standardized testing requirements that have children as young as third grade using computers for mandatory tests.

Because of this, students are learning computer skills and computer literacy beginning as early as first grade.

“Technology is not something that is going away,” Wilson stressed. “Teachers coming in are wanting to use it. The government is wanting us to test with it.”

FOR REFERENCE on the importance of limiting screen time, both Jones and Boyle said parents can take notes from those who created some of the world’s leading technology. Big names in the industry, including founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, and the founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, have chosen to greatly limit their own children’s screen time.

In 2007, Gates reportedly set strict guidelines regarding screen time for his daughter and before his passing, Jobs told a New York Times reporter his children were not allowed to have or use an iPad.

“It’s very telling,” Jones said. “A lot of technology from iPads to smartphones are [sic] built around ways to target the reward pathways in our brains. It feels good to pick up our phones and look for things. Did someone message, do I have an email?”

Phone policies vary from school to school, but most educators request that students leave them in lockers during class time. But Jones said research is showing that even our expectations that messages and so forth be waiting for us when we are reunited with our technology is enough to make us lose focus and even keep us up at night.

“Kids are lacking sleep these days, which is in part because of technology. What they find is that even if someone’s phone isn’t anywhere near them, even the anticipation of our phone alerting us of something is enough to keep kids out of an adequate sleeping state,” Jones said.

Jones suggested parents work toward setting technology limits at an early age in an effort to curb such side-effects. Research suggests a technology cleanse every now and then has been found to be very beneficial in remedying the effects of too much screen time, he added.

Boyle pointed out that in a place like Montana, curricula centered around getting back to one’s roots and in touch with nature are begging to be built. One such example is Whitefish School District’s Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship.

“Each year we are trying to build more ways to engage other grades with that center,” said Josh Brandstatter, principal of Whitefish Middle School. “We want to work toward those programs that don’t involve the screen time and just allow kids to be outside and in nature.”

Added Boyle: “We all have a development window that can feel brief sometimes. As our children’s brains are developing it’s crucial that we interact with our environment in a natural way.”

Kianna Gardner may be reached at 758-4438 or