There has been a huge amount of new research on screen time within the past 12 months, that’s starting to ring alarm bells for health professionals. This new information should be provoking thought too, about the use of technology in many New Zealand primary schools. While students need to develop digital literacy -­ and there is some excellent purposeful use of tech in the classroom for young children – these new findings give us an opportunity to reflect on what is going well, and what isn’t. And before we start pulling out fear of ball point pen comparisons, let’s consider some of the information.

The effects of too much screen time

Numerous studies report negative physical and mental health outcomes associated with screen time including among others, severe headaches, tendon injuries, neck and back injuries, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. More than three hours of screen time has been associated with computer vision syndrome in 90 per cent of users, regardless of content, according to the US national institute of health and safety. Media use (including social media, texting, gaming and surfing the net) of more than five hours a week has been found to have a negative impact on the mental health of teens (1).

While adults can experience lower work productivity, in education students have been shown to have less understanding and retention of information, not only when reading long or complex text on devices (compared to paper), but when taking notes in class. These lower outcomes can not only affect the user, but all those within visible range of the screen (2,3,4,5). Both observations and students’ self-reporting suggest what many parents suspect: kids are using devices in class for non-academic purposes, such as messaging and playing games. Teachers are reporting an increase in children starting school with attentional difficulties, with some children even having trouble separating the virtual world from the real one. There has been a reported rise in ASD and ADHD, and a link between this rise and children exposed to more than four hours of screen time a day. These children’s symptoms were resolved with removal of screen-time, leading to the term of ‘virtual autism’ (6,7).

The problem with edu-gaming

Parents and paediatricians are voicing concerns about gamification in schools. There is research currently underway looking at whether reward-based edu-gaming affects the intrinsic motivation of students who would have been prepared to do the same task without a reward. This is known as the overjustification effect, where studies have shown that giving kids rewards reduced their desire to do the same task without (8). Reward based edu-games are programs that have features like earning money, or eggs, that buy game time for school work done. But even digital bursts of sparkles and cheering can create a dopamine hit that cause children to seek out the response again and again. It’s how game, media and app makers exploit our own psychology, using these dopamine feedback loops. Makers can also create ‘desire engines’ that go beyond just reinforcing the behaviour. They are designed to create habits by providing variable rewards, and by using your own information to personalise and market precisely what will keep you going.

It might seem strange that some of these edu-games market themselves on their reward systems; they’re not even trying to hide it. But educational experts recommend that intrinsic motivation is what educators should be aiming for. Perhaps they appeal because some apps do show short-term evidence of improvements? There would likely be short-term dinner eating improvements if parents offered lollies for finishing meals as well. But the evidence on one thing is absolutely clear – the introduction of technology into schools has not improved educational outcomes (OECD 2015). In fact in New Zealand, our literacy and maths have seen a gradual decline over the past 15 years (9). Studies have even found results that are the opposite to expectation and intention – when high speed internet goes in, school academic results go down, and the hardest hit are children from low income families (10).

Researchers are questioning not only the impact of edu-gaming on developing brains, but whether edu-gaming in class can lead to increased recreational gaming behaviour; and whether groups thought to be more vulnerable to digital addiction (such as ASD, ADHD) are more at risk. Around ten per cent of the population are simply more predisposed to addiction per se, and no one wants their child to be in the increasing statistics of those with digital addiction. But does it matter if kids are gaming more recreationally? For some families, it probably doesn’t. But there are negative correlations between health and gaming, and other families might see this as time not so well spent, or as not fitting in with their family values. Either way, by this logic, parental choice could be compromised by the use of gaming in schools. There’s a belief that kids’ gaming is improving their technology skills and employment opportunities in a high-tech world, but with the increase in gaming culture having been around for a while, studies are showing that boys who game are mostly turning into, not highly paid Google executives, but just men who game.

Using digital technology inclusively

There are questions also being asked about the impact of these digital programs on children with sensory or attentional disorders, among others. Do these vulnerable groups just need to get used to life’s realities, or is it impacting on their learning at a time when they’re trying to get the basic building blocks of education? Conversely, are there groups that benefit, and is there a way to reach these children without disadvantaging the rest?

And why are health professionals concerned about this dopamine feedback loop that compels users to repeat the same behaviour? Why are they concerned about windows of learning for social and attentional skills, and how the concrete learning style of young children fits in with the abstract two-dimensional digital world? Most don’t stand to gain financially, while the billion dollar tech-ed industry might not be so unbiased. Why are former tech employees standing up, expressing regret and trying to educate users on how persuasive design and aggressive manipulation is used to capture as much of their attention as possible? Why are so many Silicon Valley workers choosing to put their own children in low-tech schools, saying that the technology they helped to create has been designed to be incredibly simple to use, and that there is plenty of time for their children to learn? That the devices they’re currently using will be obsolete, that the technology kids will need as adults will likely be incomprehensible to us?

Meanwhile, some schools have enthusiastically launched in, reportedly using up to two to two-and-a-half hours a day of device time from Year 4, with near constant access as a tool. That’s not an abrupt change from the previous years. Yet the latest OECD reports show that schools with moderate tech use (defined as using devices once or twice per week), have the best educational outcomes – including high schools. The BYOD implementation has been supported by reports finding evidence of increased student engagement – and doesn’t increased engagement with learning mean better learning? But the research in this area is also clear – there is no evidence that improved engagement with digital technology means improved learning outcomes. As one parent pointed out, their child loves to lick concrete, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for them.

Research is rolling in

Part of the problem has been a lack of research, with advances in technology outpacing the ability to study them. But research is rolling in now, and looking to groups who have been using devices in schools for longer can help. Maryland in the US, is one of the first states to look at legislating for digital protection of their children. The legislation is supported by the American Pediatric Association, and is cited alongside other health concerns, to be largely due to an explosion of myopia in their children (11). Myopia among other health reasons, is why schools and kindergartens need to consider the total amount of screen time children are getting when they consider school device use. The majority of New Zealand children have unsupervised, unrestricted screen use from nine years old (CensusAtSchool). Teens spend an average of nine hours a day using media, with six hours for tweens. That doesn’t include school use (12).

And there’s a fresh area of concern, that our more disadvantaged communities are further affected by the downside of too such screen time – the very communities for whom technology was supposed to ‘level the playing field’ of education. There was panic about the digital divide, but there has been a reversal in the pattern, with 98 per cent of all homes owning at least one device, and lower socioeconomic groups having significantly more screen time than their more affluent peers (13). Increasingly, families who can pay privately are electing lower tech schools, coining a ‘new digital divide’. But regardless of this, New Zealand, along with Australia and the US, is one of the highest users of technology in schools in the world. And when it comes to the health effects of too much screen time, the finger quickly gets pointed at parents. Parents are being told to manage and supervise screen time, and above all, to model their own use to influence their child. But this ignores several points. Let’s explore why these solutions don’t seem to be working.

Devices test self-control and peer pressure 
The first is the persuasive design of these devices. Parents can model to their hearts content, but they’re working against apps and devices that are intentionally designed by neuropsychologists, to pull in their child’s attention and manipulate them to keep them there for as long as possible. Parents can model reading, but you don’t get the same dopamine feedback from a book or a Kindle that you do with many reading apps. Does that book look a bit boring, when the one on the screen is interactive, with dogs that bark when you touch them, music and other features? Is that book getting a child’s heart racing and blood pressure rising in excitement like games do? It’s an interesting point, that even adults are noticing they read less and are feeling hooked on their phones. Are we expecting kids and teens to have the self-control with which fully developed adults are struggling?

A significant consideration for schools and teachers needs to be the impact of BYOD and gaming homework on parents. Many parents report the point that the moment they lost control of their child’s screen time was shortly after the school encouraged them to them to buy their child their own device. Now homework is online and looks like other games. Families are reporting the constant friction the device brought into their homes became too damaging, and they let it go.

So what changes are needed to support parents with these issues? Initiatives like that from Kowhai Intermediate, who banned smart phones and encourage no social media use for their students, have been largely welcomed by the community. The number one reason parents report for buying their child a smart phone – the average age is now 10 – is feeling pressured that they will ostracise them by not getting one. This is despite the tsunami of evidence that shows that children’s grades are lowered the moment they get one. And many parents report regretting their decision.

These recent research findings are a part of a wider picture, and they don’t discount the incredible opportunities that digital technology can give us. But it does give us a chance to reflect on: what is going well with tech use in primary, and how can we enhance this?

How can we best use tech to support kids?

Firstly, we have wonderful dedicated teachers doing their best to support our kids.  Some primary schools are very considered with their tech use, and many have pulled back on screen-time in the early years. Some are placing more emphasis on group work without students on individual devices, which is supported in the literature to create an environment conducive to learning. Following research and advice, others are leaving iPads in the cupboard and moving back to desktops. Teachers demonstrate the use of technology as a tool and for research, and can begin to integrate this into the children’s own work. Making the most of resources that showcase the innovative ways technology has been used to solve real problems can spark ideas, and raise the awareness of the usefulness of technology for young learners. A few schools have regular tech-free days, education on responsible tech use, and teach computation thinking with practical – as opposed to virtual – games. After all, workshops that were run by the Ministry of Education were very specific that what primary children need to learn is computational thinking. This can be taught without a computer, indeed Mike Fellows who developed the computer science program for 5-12 year olds ‘CNS unplugged’, notes that computers can in fact be a distraction to learning this. The Ministry clearly stated that teaching computational thinking did not mean iPad time.

The future is changing, and we do need to consider how to best prepare our young kids. Again it’s interesting to hear the thoughts of those who created the technology. They say the skills their children need are more about social and emotional well-being than technology, more about developing knowledge, focus and critical thinking. There is compelling discussion on what will set our kids apart from robots and automation – a knowledge of history, compassion, empathy, team work.

The global push to moderate tech

In response to this overwhelming research, there are changes happening all over the world. Conferences, educational platforms and organisations like humane tech have been taken off in 2018. Groups are forming to support parents, teachers and other professionals, who are looking to use moderate and purposeful tech with children. France has banned the use of smart phones in schools, which has been shown to improve educational outcomes in high school students by 6.4 per cent, and by 14 per cent for underachieving students (14). They have banned them for social and health reasons as well, and other countries are looking to follow suit and many parents support this (15). Even Swedish high school students support a ban, with experts saying it’s as obvious as banning smoking. Scotland are considering making the age of digital consent 16 where children can be unsupervised, noting that the internet is no place for a developing child. Some countries don’t allow the sale or use in schools of smartphones for under-16s. Digital rehabilitation clinics are springing up around the world.

Legislation in Maryland advises all homework be given with a digital and paper option to suit all learning needs. This option could allow students who may be more reluctant learners – the same group for whom game-based and digital reading programs have shown the most benefits – to use these resources at home, without disadvantaging other groups.  The legislation also recommends that by the end of high school, computer use should involve no more than a maximum of half the day, with a gradual progression from five years old. They have a digital health board who advise on the safe use of digital technology in schools for children, and how schools can contribute to a positive tech culture in the community.

Here in New Zealand, the time is right to become world leaders in the excellent use of digital technology in schools, and to find platforms to prepare our children to use computers as tools, while promoting safe use and balance both in schools and in the wider community. We want our kids to be prepared for a digital future and to be innovative. But New Zealanders are historically renowned for their innovation. Could it be cultural, that Kiwis are prepared to try and find a different way when things don’t work out, even if that is a little against the rules, rather than because of iPad game time? Now back to the ball point pen fear for a moment. Let’s look at the research here. Now that’s something to consider carefully.


1)    Twenge, J. M., Martin, G. M., & Campbell, W.K. (2018). Decreases in psychological well-being among American adolescents after 2012 and links to screen time during the rise of smart phone technology.

2)    Kutcher, M. T. (2017). The effects of digital technology on reading. Psychology today.

3)    Sana, F., & Cepeda, N. J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers and education, 62: 24-31. Science direct.

4)    Carter, S.P., Greenberg, K.,  & Walker, S.W. (2017). The impact of computer usage on academic performance from a randomized trial at the US military academy. Economics of education review, 56, 118-132.  Science direct.

5)    Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheiner, D.M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard. Psychological science online first; SAGE journals.

6)    Cytowic, R. E. (2017). There is a new link between screen-time and autism. Psychology today.

7)   TVA nouvelles, (2017).  Autistic disorders: alarming symptoms in toddlers exposed to screens. TVA nouvelles, 21-43.

8) Lepper, M.R., Greene, D., & Lisbett, R.E. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic rewards. APA psychNet.


10) Clotfelter, C. T., Ladd, H. F., & Vigdor, J. L. (2008). Scaling the digital divide: Home computer technology and student achievement.

11) CCFC – Maryland report

12) Common sense census: media use by teens and tweens

13) Ericsson survey reported by Ina Freid 2014

14) Beyland, L.P., & Murphy, R. (2015). Technology, distraction and student performance. Labour economics, 41, 61-76. CFEC


Source: Education Review


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