Eye on Education: The Screen-Time Obsession

Once a week, the Lethbridge Herald publishes a column written by a superintendent of one of five school jurisdictions in the Lethbridge area. This week’s column is authored by our Westwind superintendent, Darren Mazutinec. 

During my 29 years in education, one of the events that had the most profound impact on me as a parent and educator was the accidental and unexpected death of a Grade 11 student.

In the days following this sudden and devastating event, my Social Studies 20 students were understandably struggling to stay focused on the curriculum material. I decided to redirect them to write in their journals about how they were feeling, what they were taking away from the heartbreaking situation, and whether or not it had changed the way they thought about their futures. I was expecting responses such as “I can’t wait to graduate and leave this one-horse town,” or “I want to have fun, live on my own, and come and go as I please.”

When I gave the class the option to share their journal entries, I was surprised by what I heard. The top two themes that emerged from this class of 25 students were that they wanted to spend more time with their parents and they wanted to have more structure and rules in their homes. My respect and admiration for this group of young adults grew exponentially that day as they shared open and honest thoughts and feelings with their peers.

Last week, Westwind School Division hosted motivational speaker and TED presenter Collin Kartchner for parent and student information sessions about youth cellphone use and the harmful effects of social media. Within our district and school leadership teams, we are witnessing a growing trend of increased cellphone use that has us on high alert. We are seeing less direct verbal interaction between students, noses in phones during all breaks, texting and surfing during classes, increased conversations with parents over electronic bullying and dramatic increases in student anxiety resulting in absences.

On my weekly date night with my wife, I witness many couples and families at restaurants, sporting events and in the mall playing on their cellphones instead of being in the moment with the most important people in their lives. Our students/children want and need their parents and caregivers to be present and available to them. Researchers, doctors and psychologists have given us sound direction to counteract this screen-time obsession. Take the time to ask your children about their day, their learning, their “wins” and their struggles. Go for a walk with them, make dinner together and enjoy being together. Be sure to model appropriate electronic behaviour and levels of screen time for your children.

The best indicator for student learning is a safe and caring learning environment; this same environment is needed away from our classrooms and in the home. To create a safe and caring learning environment in our classrooms, we establish rules, responsibilities and expected codes of actions and behaviours for students and teachers alike. Just as my Grade 11 social studies students had a desire for more structure and rules in the homes, we need to help them by setting boundaries with our youth for their smartphones and screen time.

During his visit, Kartchner recommended creating a family screen-time contract that can be used to collaboratively to set healthy screen-time boundaries for everyone in the family, including parents.

Cellphones are a fixture in society, and that likely won’t change. They are wonderful and hateful, all at the same time. With wise modelling of appropriate cellphone use and as well as clear boundaries and support for our youth, we can start to create positive digital citizenship for our next generation of fathers, mothers, community leaders and educators.