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Is Screen Time Harmful or Helpful for Student Learning?

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

How much screen time is too much in education?

Our team recently discovered this interview with Maryann Wolf, the director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

In the interview, Maryann reveals that using screens to teach children the building blocks of reading diminishes their ability to focus and overstimulates them to the point of boredom. Young people start relying on a passive approach to learning rather than a focused, interactive approach.

This begs the question: what does this tell us about the brain’s need for tangible connection within the learning process? And what does the future of deep learning look like with technology-use increasing within classrooms?

Here’s what Maryann has to say about screen-use in a beginning reader’s education:

Is it a good or a bad idea to have students read on a screen versus on a real piece of paper?

Reading development begins well before any teaching. For young children, physical books are best, audio is second best, and tablet is a clear third. And the reason is that there is a certain double-edged sword here. On the one hand, the tablet is more engaging. On the other hand, it’s a passivity of engagement. It is over-utilizing what we call the novelty reflex that human beings have. This is the last thing we want for child development because we’re wanting them to learn to focus. Instead, they are learning to be distracted.

The “novelty reflex” Maryann mentions is better known as the “orienting reflex” and is a person’s “what is that?” reaction to a change in environment. Screens constantly present new stimuli, which activate young people’s orienting reflex. When this natural, survival instinct is over-stimulated, it creates a consistent distraction for young people, diminishing their abilities to focus and take in information.

There are fewer people reading physical books these days. What are the implications of that trend?

The perception of the students is that they’re better readers on the screen. They believe that they’re better on the screen because they’re faster. They are faster, but they are faster because they [are] basically scrolling, word spotting, skimming, scanning . . . We know that print has advantages because it encourages the time-consuming deep reading processes. But in the future . . . we’re going to have most people who are just digital natives. The question is: how do we get the brain to be a deep, empathic, critical, insightful thinker?

This is a powerful question Maryann poses. We know that screen-time and social media rely on pinging the reward system of the brain. Online experiences are curated to be enjoyable, easy-to-use, and quickly digestible. The fact that students feel like they are reading better on a screen when in reality they are scanning information shows how heavily screen-learning relies on feel-good responses. It is alluring for young people to feel that they are gaining lots of knowledge without the need to spend more painstaking time comprehending and embodying what they are learning.

So, how do we ensure that the brain is receiving the space and independence it needs to develop critical and independent thinking skills? With the inevitable increase of screen-usage for students, how do we create a support system for deep learning?

Two words: experiential learning.

Experiential learning is a critical support system for the brain in this digital age. Not only does it give students concrete experiences in the physical world, but it also purposefully asks students to reflect on what they’ve just tangibly experienced. This provides the space and time the brain needs to digest and learn. Ensuring that repetition, observation, and reflection are all a part of the learning process diminishes stimuli, promotes patience and perseverance, and encourages focus.

While screens can be very helpful for certain education goals (such as testing reading comprehension, as Maryann points out), relying too heavily on screen-education may deprive students of the active learning that is a natural part of living in the physical world. David Wall, the Head of Expeditions at Nord Anglia Education, has this to say about the importance of more experiential learning opportunities for students.

“In this digital age experiential learning has become more important than ever. Many people receive tailored information through their devices, never getting to see the imperfect world that we live in. How we learn about the real world versus how we experience the real world can often be completely different.”

Bottom line: screen usage in education has its place and can be a powerful tool. But the tangible world continues to be the greatest natural fodder for learning. As we progress into the digital age, it will be up to educators, parents, and students to create more experiential learning opportunities for students. It is important that we create support systems for tangible learning within a digital world.

NJIN exists for this very purpose. If you are a parent of a young student or a student yourself who is looking for opportunities to build observational skills, connect with the physical world, and build practical skills, we are here for you. Check out our homepage to see which program is perfect for you! Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram at @nj_institute_of_nature. And to read the full, fascinating interview with Maryann, click here.

Let’s tangibly learn together!



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