Screen Time vs Screen Quality: Mobile devices and your learners

Use content that is meaningful to your students and encourages active thought. Image Credit: The Joan Gantz Cooney Center

Are you reading this on your smartphone or table? Given how much of daily life is centered around the mobile device, it’s no surprise that mobile device usage is a practice being acquired earlier and earlier in life. Like a double-edged sword, mobile devices can be both avenues of learning and efficiency, and also distraction. With device usage beginning in a child’s formative years, the prevalence of technology in education and the use of applications to impart various knowledge and skills to our young ones, parents and educators are naturally inclined to be concerned of the effect of extensive mobile device usage, or screen time.

Is this your playground? Image Credit: Gary Varvel/ Indystar

Screen time: Quantity or quality?

There is currently a level of public debate on how much time today’s children are spending on mobile devices and how that time can adversely affect their development instead of encouraging it.

However, not every occasion of screen time is equal to another. Spending ten minutes using a tablet to take still life pictures with the right level of exposure would have a different mental requirements for the user as opposed to using the same tablet to play a repetitive shooting game with the same amount of time. That being the case, the question of regulating screen time based on quantity alone isn’t comprehensive.


Media researcher and early education expert Clement Chau purports that the comparison ought to be made based on screen quality instead. Cultural anthropologist Carisa Kluver agrees. Most times, what other parties generally condemn as ‘bad’ is merely passive media content that does not place high mental demands on the user, such as television. As parents and educators, it’s premature to presume that any media on a screen is in itself detrimental to mental development, simply by merit of the duration a user spends on it.

Moving forward

FYI, how NOT to use mobile devices in your class. Image Credit: Bryant Arnold/

In an article for Edutopia, edtech instructor Beth Holland wrote that with screen time having the capacity to be both informative or distracting, the challenge for parents and educators alike when using mobile devices with their kids is to guide them not only to use the devices, but to grow in self-awareness and self-management.

These stances by no means endorse long periods of time spent in front of a screen, but rather to ensure that the time is spent on activities that add value to your child’s development. Children’s health writer Katie Vaughan recommends being very clear about what kind of apps/ content will be used, and its parameters, and practicing accountability. (Yes Mom and Dad, no phones at the dinner table!)

What you can do

And this is not collaboration in learning. Image Credit: Rob Cottingham/ Noise to Signal Comics

The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no screen time for children younger than 18 months of age, but ultimately, parents and educators are stewards of a child’s media usage. Kluver asserts that what matters isn’t merely how children consume media and the duration they spend on  it, but what kind of content they engage with and who they use it with. Prioritize quality, moderation and most importantly, use media together actively and watch your kids grow. Here are some practices that educators can adopt and adapt to their learners when it comes to seeking quality content and establishing parameters on the usage of mobile electronic devices in the classroom.

Set the precedent beforehand

Actions speak louder to your kids than words, especially yours. If you expect your kids not to use their devices outside a designated time, verbalize your expectation before you begin, then demonstrate by putting your own device away and not pick it up during the lesson (easier said than done).

And believe me, kids can be really effective reminders if we should ever forget our own rules. Here’s a classic example. Dr Dobson just might have been ahead of the times in suggesting gamification in behavioral modification.

Once you post it, it’s out there permanently, kids.

Teach and model digital citizenship

The Internet can be a dangerous place, and your classroom provides a safe space for your students to learn about how to use it responsibly and cyber safety. In her TEDx Fargo talk, third grade educator Kayla Delzer shared about how she listed students rules for Internet use, as well as a moderated Twitter account for her class to get real-life exposure in digital etiquette.

Encourage your young charges to be aware of their digital footprint, as well as empathy and awareness in communication between netizens, as online communication is usually without face-to-face interaction.

Select content that fosters collaboration and teamwork

As mentioned earlier, there is content that requires deliberate, well thought through responses from its users, and there is the kind that doesn’t.

Besides content that requires active thought, go for content that is encourages students to learn in collaboration. Delzer herself subscribed to an app which have her students reading aloud and listening to each others’ recordings. The class came away not only with a sense of pride in their performance, but also new knowledge on the finer points of verbal communication; e.g. intonation, pacing.

When your kids use media together, it is also an opportunity for educators to emphasize another point in digital citizenship – to be aware of the presence of other netizens and ensure that your input will add value.

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