Welcome back after what I hope was a refreshing Spring break for everyone. I visited the playing fields earlier this week and it was encouraging to see the signs of spring sprouting in the sunshine. Unfortunately, as I look out my office window at the moment the rain has just started to drizzle and it feels distinctly less spring-like.
One of the joys of the warmer weather is seeing the children enjoying playing outside. In the lower school the tricycles and play equipment have been getting a good workout and in the Upper School I have enjoyed seeing the students playing basketball and table tennis during their lunch break. It certainly is heart-warming to see young people enjoying physical exercise and socialising instead of being glued to their screens.
During March the school hosted Dr Aric Sigmund who made three presentations to students, staff and parents about managing screen time. After his presentation there were several conversations about screen times being held in schools and homes and one parent requested some guidance from the school about our expectations regarding screen time for our students.
I would like to start by emphasising that technology has made many very positive contributions to our lives and as a school we have a responsibility to educate our students about how to make the most of the advantages that technology brings. We also have a responsibility to educate them about the potential dangers, including cyber bullying, plagiarism, information overload, exposure to inappropriate material and excessive screen time.
The American Academy of Paediatrics has recently recommended that children and teenagers should engage with entertainment media for no more than one to two hours per day which is much less than the average of 7 hours a day that children are spending on televisions, computers, phones and other electronic devices. This recommendation comes in the light of research that found that excessive screen time can lead to attention problems, obesity and sleep disorders.
Given the ubiquitous nature of screens in our culture how can we support the young people in our care in managing screen time? Fortunately, other research has shown that parental monitoring of screen time has a positive effect on the health of children, so parents are more powerful than we are often led to believe. 
As well as setting time limits on the recreational use of screen time parents can help by not allowing their children to have screens in their bedroom. Recently when I spoke to our D2 students about their sleep habits, several of them admitted that gadgets were their main obstacle to getting a good night’s sleep. Parents should not feel apologetic about insisting that phones and computers are turned off and put away before bed-time. If teenagers complain that they use their phones to wake them in the morning it would be worth buying an alarm clock.
We should also be encouraging children to turn off their devices when they are studying; having instagram/Facebook/snapchat/whatsapp calling to you when you are trying to concentrate on your homework is very distracting. Most teenagers will claim that they can multi-task, but this isn’t true and when they are working they should be concentrating on doing one thing at a time.
In the past I have been alarmed to hear children and young teenagers discussing games or movies that are not suitable for their age. Sometimes their parents have bought these films and games for them. Similarly it is worrying that so many young children have social media accounts that are age restricted. I would encourage parents to be firm about insisting their children abide by age restrictions. We have a long time to be adults, but childhood disappears all too quickly and we need to allow our children to be children.
I have heard many suggestions of ways we can help to combat the pervasive tentacles of gadgets and I have listed some of them below:
- Establish time limits for screen use, and then enforce them strictly
- Have screen-free dinners
- Leave phones/laptops/tablets downstairs at bedtime
- Take screen breaks at least every half hour
- Model the behaviour you want your children to emulate
- Have an hour screen-free gap before sleep (kindles without blue light excepted)
Most importantly, it is good to talk to our children about their screen use and explain to them why we want to restrict it and involve them in establishing ‘house rules’ around the use of gadgets. It is also worth noting that I am referring to recreational (not educational) screen time and this is not a great excuse not to do screen based homework.
When I was growing up we had one family telephone, which was permanently attached to the wall in the kitchen and there were only 4 channels on the one television we had in our family room. Times have changed. It is a challenging but exciting world the children of today are growing up in and I hope that together we can help them enjoy all the advantages of living in the technology-rich 21st century.