'Screens have taken possession of us all: teachers, students, parents'

If teachers are going to reduce children's screen time, they will need the support of parents, says Richard Bromfield

Teachers alone won't be able to tackle pupils' addiction of their phones, says Richard Bromfield

Back in the autumn of 2000, I published a small book with observations from the classroom. It was called a “field guide” for “understanding children and teachers”, and it has long since gone out of print.

The book explored what seemed to me to be significant and relevant issues: what it means for children to show themselves through their oral and written expression; the need to welcome both good and bad feelings into the classroom; how having to learn a new second language creates cultural tension for a child; ways to reach a detached student; and so on. 

The book also paid attention to what teachers feel, noting how they daily and bravely endure difficult parents, dismissive pupils, diminishing resources and increasing demands on their nigh-impossible profession. Many reviewers praised the book for revealing real children in real classrooms.  

And yet, while finding that the experiences in the book resonated with their own, many educators took me to task. We are not psychologists, their comments said. We are educators in our classrooms for one main purpose – so that our students can learn.

Cutting children's screen time

What a difference 18 years can make. In 2019, schools, curricula and policies now focus explicitly and by necessity on issues such as equity, socio-emotional development, culture and English as a second language. The stress of poverty, broken families, substance abuse, forced migrations and other social ills is only rising. Contemporary educators must know, understand, implement and even evaluate more and more that’s complex and demanding.

If that isn’t enough, consider the students who can’t leave their mobile phones for a minute. Like so many stand-up performers with a rough nightclub crowd, educators carry on even as they watch their students peek at their phones, texting and browsing, with maybe one eye and ear to what’s transpiring in the classroom.

How frustrating for educators trying their best to get and keep the students’ attention. How saddening, too, for educators who know the hard lives and futures that lie ahead for children who come out of school into the world uneducated and unprepared.

These same educators witness students running from the classroom to go and use their phones even more freely, in the hallways or out on the grounds. They pass by students who sit around cafeteria tables, each of whom pays more attention to their phone than to the other kids sitting alongside them. And these educators also know what happens after school, when devices and social media steal children’s focus away from homework, study, family time, social connectedness, physical activity and more.

Technology can seem almost magical. And yet, the more essential it becomes to modern life, the harder it is for children to escape its harms.

This situation can appear bleak and discouraging, looking more hopeless by the day. What are today’s educators to do?

Social media obsession

Try to keep in mind what’s behind this reality. Technology and screens have taken possession of most of us – whether student, parent or educator. Many of the keen minds that design and produce video games, streaming video, and apps know just how to grab and exploit a human brain so that it wants to keep playing, watching and clicking. We’re all vulnerable

Though a solution to the screen problem might seem elusive, the core of the issue is simple. Children need their parents’ help to reduce screen time, and parents need each other’s help. Parents, I believe, know the score and what’s at stake; they just feel unable or unwilling to do what it takes. 

In the meantime, educators will continue to do their utmost to teach children to employ technology in ways that are productive, considerate, and safe. And they’ll continue to seek and find the best in each child and parent, trying to understand, while aspiring to effect whatever change they can. 

Will the future bring micro storage where students leave their phones for the school day, or building-wide blocks of wifi and 5G in the classrooms? I’m sure that the tech industry itself will come up with products to help the cause.

Ultimately, however, I don’t think it will be an app, game or device that eventually helps children to learn to manage and find a more balanced life with their screens. (Or parents with their own screens, for that matter.) If there’s any hope of reversing the screen problem before it’s too late, I’m willing to bet my lunch money that it arises not from a new device or piece of software, but from something less digital and more human.

Richard Bromfield, a Harvard Medical School psychologist, writes about children, therapy and family life. He is the author of a new book, Standing Up to Screens: A doable plan for parents united

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