Limiting Screen Time in the Classroom: Why Live Discussion Matters
Last fall, I tasked my eleventh grade US History class with a small exercise on a Monday morning: get into groups of 4–5 students and debate the merits of the Albany Plan of Union. What I wanted was 20 minutes of spirited discussion about a significant moment in the history of the United States. I hoped for pointed questions and passionate defenses of views and well-evidenced statements of beliefs.
Imagine my surprise when all sixteen students in the class immediately opened their computers and looked at their screens. They spoke for approximately thirty seconds, debating the logistics of who in the group would open a GoogleDoc and invite the rest of the group members. And then, silence save for the clicks of fingers on keyboards and the occasional squeaking of a chair as students shifted in their seats.
What I got was a dispassionate dialogue that evolved over a shared document. After ten minutes, I stopped my students and told them to close their computers.
Over the course of the year, I pushed my students toward a reduction of screen time in the classroom. Of course they needed to access their computers on a number of occasions — for research purposes, reading primary sources, examining maps and submission of homework. Yet in any activity that called for discussion or debate, I required that the students interact with one another screen-free. I will certainly do this in my future years as a teacher, and here is why:
- While the students initially felt somewhat uncomfortable debating orally and longed to hide behind their devices, increasing exposure to screen-free conversation pushed my students to gain confidence and comfort with themselves and with one another. Planned debates elicited murmurs of excitement rather than groans of displeasure, and organic discussions happened far more often.
- Over the course of the year, the students seemed happier in class. Personal interaction actually seemed to stimulate and generate more humor, warmth and excitement for one another and the act of learning history in general.
- Undeniably, the students gained skills as public speakers and debaters. I am not saying that all of my students will serve as public defenders or politicians, or some other position where public speaking or oral argument are paramount, but each and every one of my students learned to marshal an argument, defend their views, listen to others, respond to queries, ask pointed questions and find their voice. This would not have been possible if they conducted the debate, and the ones that followed, online.
- The activity, and subsequent debates and discussions, bonded our class in shared purpose. The students were not learning in isolation, and the open conversation allowed me to guide and really teach the students in terms of content and skill. By closing our computers and engaging with one another, we invested ourselves in the class and its development.
Research in the last five years points to the link between screen-time and adolescent unhappiness. Recent studies capture the connection between the amount of time teenagers or tweens spend connected to devices and their reporting of feelings of loneliness, depression or desire for personal harm.¹ Jean M. Twenge, child psychology researcher and author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us, has researched and written extensively about the dangers of over-dependence on technology and social media for kids under the age of 18. (For an adapted version of her book, see the Article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation” in The Atlantic).² Her research points to the fact that regular, unfettered access to devices for high schoolers results in significant reduction in sleep, desire to socialize, feelings of connection or community and general happiness. Twenge captures these ideas quite elegantly when she writes, “If you were going to give advice for a happy adolescence based on this survey, it would be straightforward: Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something — anything — that does not involve a screen.”³ In my mind, this is somewhat of a call to action for educators and parents.
In no way am I advocating that we go cold-turkey on using computers or the Internet. I know that technology has many educational benefits. I regularly use technology as a teacher, both in terms of curriculum construction and within the classroom. Just the day before the Albany Congress debate, I had my students craft fake tweets that accurately captured the causes and significance of the French and Indian War (think #whatsalutaryneglect #wewanttheOhioRiverValley). There are times when computer use is helpful and even necessary, and there are certainly means of using it creatively to better connect with your students and their lives. Yet over-dependence on electronic devices and avoidance of real conversation and discussion does the students, the class and you as a teacher a disservice.
It is hard as a teacher or parent to fight the tide of electronic dependence. Our students and our children often have continued access to screens, whether that be at school or at home, on computers, tablets or smartphones, or for educational or personal usage. A recent United Nation’s Children’s Fund report noted that 1 out of 3 Internet users worldwide are under the age of 18.⁴ In 2015, Common Sense Media released the Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens which noted that American teenagers (ages 13–18) average just under nine hours of screen time or media usage per day — a day!⁵
Yet fight the tide we must, at least in certain moments and for certain activities. For every class that I used computers or tablets for research, Internet usage or written expression, I tried to include two where the students did not need or use their devices. I took every opportunity for in-person discussion and debate that I could, and crafted my lesson plans to include simulations, mock trials and projects that required students to stop their connection to computers and build connection to one another. My students fought me at first, and it was both concerning and humorous to watch them overcome their physical habits of opening their computers at the outset of a class. But the end result was so worth it, for me and for them. We were united, engaged and purposeful, yes, but — most importantly — we were happy.
 Walton, Alice G. “How Too Much Screen Time Affects Kids’ Bodies And Brains.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 16 Apr. 2018, www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2018/04/16/how-too-much-screen-time-affects-kids-bodies-and-brains/#44b02de91549.
 Twenge, Jean M. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 19 Mar. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/.
 Kamenetz, Anya. “5 Things To Know About Screen Time Right Now.” NPR, National Public Radio, 3 Jan. 2018, www.npr.org/sections/ed/2018/01/03/572875689/five-things-to-know-about-screen-time-right-now.
 “The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens | Common Sense Media.” Common Sense Media: Ratings, Reviews, and Advice, Common Sense Media, 3 Nov. 2015, www.commonsensemedia.org/research/the-common-sense-census-media-use-by-tweens-and-teens.