Influence of Screen Time

Screen time can be helpful for children to slow down, veg out, and relax after a busy day—or while caregivers need to make dinner, do chores, or respond to emails. It can also be helpful in the classroom to reinforce what the teacher has taught, provide a multi-media experience, or let the student explore the world of technology. What many people don't realize is that screen time provides a large amount of visual and auditory stimulation while at the same time depriving the body of tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular input. This imbalance of sensory input can be quite dysregulating for many children. When children come off of screens they can appear like they have an SPD because their brain is craving movement and touch experiences.

Adult brains are also influenced by screen time. Studies indicate higher levels of depression and obesity among adults who spend considerable amounts of time on a screen.8-9 Even adult brains continue to change, albeit slower than children's, due to neuroplasticity. Screen time can thus interfere with executive functioning skills (such as planning, organizing, working memory, and self-control), creativity and self-reflection, and sustained attention. Too much screen time interferes with the ability not only to connect to others—like your students—but also to connect with yourself.

It is also important to consider what screen time is replacing. There are only a certain number of hours in a day; so if a 9-year-old child is on the screen outside of school for an average of four hours, as indicated by research from Common Sense Media, that means four hours less of face- to-face interactions with peers, or time exploring outside, or engaging with hands-on manipulatives and toys.10This is true within the school environment as well. It is important that you consider not only how engagement with technology can enhance a student's learning experience but also what activity the technology is replacing. Students learn best with interactive, hands-on, multisensory activities. We operate in a 3-D world and the 2- D screen-based experience can impede the learning process—particularly with regards to one's body and spatial awareness. In fact, research supports that handwriting yields increased test scores, improved integration of concepts, and improved recall of information for students compared to typing."12

As adults we may not consider the things which screen time replaces. It may even seem like a form of self-care; relaxing with a device to take your mind off of other stressors. Yet this is actually more like brain candy— empty calories of self-care. Consider that 20 minutes checking social media or playing a game could be time spent engaging in more regulating, brain- healthy self-care: reading a book, talking with a colleague, meditating, or doing yoga. We're not suggesting that you cut out screen time altogether, just that you reflect on how your investment in screens is impacting your investment in other things.

Some children, particularly those with an SPD, may use screen time as their primary (or only) way to help regulate or calm their body down. This can be problematic because children need to learn other ways to help regulate themselves and pay attention to cues from their bodies. Children also need to be able to со-regulate with safe, trusting adults and peers as a means to facilitate self-regulation. It is therefore important for both caregivers and teachers to find other ways in which a student with SPD can calm their body. Refer back to Chapters 4-9 as a starting place for regulating activities.

Additionally, screen time systematically provides children with dopamine "hits" in order to reinforce the desire to engage with the device.3 Dopamine is a powerful neurotransmitter that plays an important role in feelings of pleasure, attention, impulse control, and learning. Too much dopamine release, however, can have negative implications for learning and engagement. Sustained attention may be impacted because students are expecting a reward every couple of minutes (or seconds!) like they receive on a screen. Research suggests that passive screen time (watching a show or video) may actually be better than active screen time (playing an educational game) because there is less frequent release of dopamine.3 Screen time can also negatively impact the white matter connections within the brain, which are crucial for the integration of different areas of the brain.12 Replacing screen time with multisensory learning, curious exploration of the world, interactive board games and puzzles, and outdoor play can facilitate white matter connectivity for a more integrated brain.

The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that for children 2-5 years old screen time be limited to one hour per day of "high quality programming," such as educational shows.14 Splitting up screen time into 20-minute increments is best for most children in order to mitigate the imbalance of sensory stimulation. However, some children can tolerate 30 minutes without negative implications while others can only tolerate 10 minutes—this is where caregivers' observations can be particularly helpful. Sitting with a child when watching a show can help engage them in conversations later about what happened and how to apply the concepts during play and social interactions.9 Teachers should also be asking questions and stimulating conversations about what students have engaged with during screen time at school.

So what does this mean for you, as teachers? Consider the following action-steps:

  • • Limit screen time in your classroom to two hours per day
  • • Split up screen time into smaller chunks—less than 20 minutes at a time
  • • Engage students in conversations and activities that help them integrate the information they learned when on the screen
  • • Consider using more passive screen activities rather than active screen activities
  • • Engage students in conversations about the positives and negatives of screen time
  • • Encourage students to develop a personal plan for screen time (what they will do on the screen, how long they will be on the screen, when they will be on the screen, what they can do when they're not on the screen), both within the school environment and at home
  • • Encourage students to talk about what they're engaging with on the screen, particularly outside of school

Here are some ways that you, as a teacher, can limit your screen time use during the course of a day in order to be more regulated and engaged with your students:

  • • Designate screen-free zones in your classroom and home (e.g., student desk area, bedroom)
  • • Designate screen-free times in your classroom and home (e.g., when eating, the first hour you wake up, one to two hours before bed)
  • • Turn off your phone during classroom instruction
  • • Set an alarm for 20 minutes when accessing social media or emails to signify that you need to stand up to take a break
  • • Delete gaming or social media apps that you find consume a large chunk of your day
  • • Ask that family and friends wait until after the school day to text or call, unless it is an emergency

As you can see, sleep, diet, and screen time can have a considerable impact on the regulation of a student, as well as your regulation as a teacher. These three factors can cause us to be more sensitive to sensory input, result in increased use of sensory input as a means of regulation, or even mimic the symptoms of SPD. By asking questions about sleep, diet, and screen time use, you can discern why a student may be behaving in a certain way, or discover why you may be more dysregulated on a given day. If you suspect that lack of sleep, inadequate diet, or increased use of screen time may be impacting a student's ability to participate in school-related activities then consider speaking with the caregivers, bearing in mind cultural differences and social justice factors, using the strategies outlined above.

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