Some Misunderstandings about the Use of Screens in the Classroom
Héctor Ruiz Martín, June 28th, 2023
We should certainly be critical about the use of digital tools in the classroom. First off, we need to determine the cases in which the added value that they bring helps us meet the educational goals. We should also be aware that their usefulness and convenience will vary across different educational levels since the learning objectives and students’ abilities will also vary.
However, the reasons given for questioning the use of digital tools in the classroom often include arguments that are not supported by research or which arise from misunderstandings in interpretation. Next, we clear up some of the most common ones:
“Screen time causes myopia”
Myopia is associated with genetic factors, but its appearance and progression depends on environmental factors. Research on the ophthalmological effects of screens does not provide conclusive evidence that screens increase the risk of developing myopia. Studies show conflicting results, but meta-analyses (i.e. studies that combine data from existing studies) do not establish an association between screen time and myopia. In reality, this research does not compare the use of screens with other activities that involve staring at one close point, like reading or writing on paper. And the fact is that research has long established an association between this type of activity and myopia. Therefore, what studies showing a relationship between screen time and myopia might be telling us is that children who spend most of their leisure time doing an activity that involves staring at a fixed point close to them, compared to doing outdoor activities, may have a higher risk of advancing the onset and progression of myopia. But when it comes to studying, there would be no difference between doing it on paper or doing it with a screen. Unfortunately, reading a lot increases the risk of developing myopia.
Lanca, C., & Saw, S. M. (2020). The association between digital screen time and myopia: A systematic review. Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics, 40(2), 216-229.
Foreman, J., Salim, A. T., Praveen, A., Fonseka, D., Ting, D. S. W., He, M. G., … & Dirani, M. (2021). Association between digital smart device use and myopia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Digital Health, 3(12), e806-e818.
Dirani, M., Crowston, J. G., & Wong, T. Y. (2019). From reading books to increased smart device screen time. British Journal of Ophthalmology, 103(1), 1-2.
Lanca, C., Yam, J. C., Jiang, W. J., Tham, Y. C., Hassan Emamian, M., Tan, C. S., … & Asian Eye Epidemiology Consortium (AEEC). (2022). Near work, screen time, outdoor time and myopia in schoolchildren in the Sunflower Myopia AEEC Consortium. Acta ophthalmologica, 100(3), 302-311.
Baird, P. N., Saw, S. M., Lanca, C., Guggenheim, J. A., Smith III, E. L., Zhou, X., … & He, M. (2020). Myopia. Nature reviews Disease primers, 6(1), 99.
“Screens cause sleep disorders in children”
Research suggests that the use of screens (including TV screens) before going to sleep can increase the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, presumably because the bright light from the screen can inhibit the nighttime secretion of melatonin, the hormone which regulates the sleep-wake cycle. On the other hand, using video games or social networks before going to sleep can disrupt sleep patterns because these applications can cause emotional activation. In addition, especially in the case of teenagers, they may be driven to stay up late to entertain themselves with screens. In short, none of this has anything to do with the use of technology in schools.
- Dworak, M., & Wiater, A. (2014). Impact on excessive media exposure on sleep and memory in children and adolescents. Young People, Media and Health: Risks and Rights. Gothenburg: Nordicom, 99-110.
- Higuchi, S., et al. (2003). Effects of VDT tasks with a bright display at night on melatonin, core temperature, heart rate, and sleepiness. Journal of Applied Physiology, 94(5), 1773-1776.
“Screens cause children to have less attention span”
There is no evidence that screens have an effect on people’s cognitive architecture. Screens are very attractive to us because our brains have evolved in such a way that we are drawn to the promise of new information that may be relevant for our purposes. What changes is that we can access this information by using a screen at any time. Let’s draw an analogy with food: our brain evolved in such a way that fats and sweets were very attractive to us, because in an environment where food was scarce, prioritizing the most energetic piece of food contributed to survival. In today’s environment, where food is no longer scarce, our brain architecture drives us to eat too many sweets and fats (and too much food in general). Learning to regulate one’s diet by overcoming these impulses is of utmost importance. Likewise, learning to regulate screen use and to differentiate between beneficial and harmful uses means being exposed to models of good use and regulation such as those that can be provided by schools.
- Wilmer, H. H., Sherman, L. E., & Chein, J. M. (2017). Smartphones and cognition: A review of research exploring the links between mobile technology habits and cognitive functioning. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 605.
- Kobayashi, K., & Hsu, M. (2019). Common neural code for reward and information value. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(26), 13061-13066.
- Gazzaley, A., & Rosen, L. D. (2016). The distracted mind: Ancient brains in a high-tech world. Mit Press.
“Screens cause addiction”
Screens are not addictive by themselves. People are not glued to their screens because they use word processors (e.g. Word), spreadsheets (e.g. Excel) or digital books on a daily basis. It’s true that certain applications can be attractive, particularly those that keep feeding new information that the brain considers relevant, such as social networks. Teenagers happen to go through a period of development defined as hypersocial, and this makes information of a social nature very attractive to them (in any case, we cannot talk about addiction, except for some special cases). Therefore, it makes no sense to think that the educational applications normally used in school may drive students to be “hooked on screens”. On the other hand, not using computers in school to prevent students from accessing social networks also makes no sense. There are technical means to prevent access if so desired, plus the vast majority of students have their own mobile device anyway.
- Bhanji, J. P., & Delgado, M. R. (2014). The social brain and reward: social information processing in the human striatum. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 5(1), 61-73.
- Kilford, E. J., Garrett, E., & Blakemore, S. J. (2016). The development of social cognition in adolescence: An integrated perspective. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 70, 106-120.
- Satchell, L. P., Fido, D., Harper, C. A., Shaw, H., Davidson, B., Ellis, D. A., … & Pavetich, M. (2021). Development of an Offline-Friend Addiction Questionnaire (O-FAQ): Are most people really social addicts?. Behavior Research Methods, 53, 1097-1106.