Researchers offer advice on screen use in schools

Researchers warn of harms to children's physical and mental health with overuse of screens in New Zealand schools.

Julie Cullen in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.
Clinicians have seen a surge in children with screen-related health issues, says researcher Julie Cullen.

A group of researchers have come up with advice on children’s screen use to assist educators in Aotearoa New Zealand to balance health risks of digital technologies with educational benefits.

Kiwi children have among the highest rates of screen use in the world, with Māori and low socioeconomic-background young people over-represented, says lead author Julie Cullen, a paediatric physiotherapist and screen researcher at the University of Auckland in an editorial in the NZMJ 5 July.

“A number of years ago, I started noticing an increasing number of children coming through clinic who had issues that seemed to relate to frequent screen use,” Cullen says.

“My colleagues, especially paediatricians and ophthalmologists, were talking about it, too.

“In New Zealand, we had recreational screen guidelines, but there was no guidance for use of digital technologies in educational settings.”

Cullen started discussing the issue with researchers at AUT and the University of Auckland and decided to embark on a research project.

Cullen evaluated and gathered evidence, but critically consulted with other health researchers, educators, clinicians and technology experts.

The evidence showed that, while moderate use of digital technologies can offer educational and social benefits, excessive screen time has been linked with health issues, including dry eye, myopia, loss of physical fitness, noise-induced hearing loss and pain syndromes.

For older children, technology can offer mental health and cognitive benefits, but only where quality content is prioritised over screen time.

The evidence the group gathered formed the basis of recommendations that have been endorsed by the New Zealand Paediatric Society and published on its website.

“Our hope is to spark conversation and offer evidence on how to find a healthy balance between the educational benefits of technology and potential harms,” Cullen says.

The recommendations offer practical advice for different age groups to mitigate risks and promote healthier screen behaviours.

For all age groups, screen use in schools should be purposeful, intentional, and backed by evidence.

Use of smartphones and watches should be limited in class, not only to reduce distractions, but also for well-being.

For young children, up to six years, the advice is minimal screen use, with no screens for under two-year-olds.

Then for six to 12-year-olds: screen use for learning is recommended for no more than a third of the school day, with more limited use for younger students and a gradual increase reflecting age/development (unless required for students with special learning needs).

From 13 to 18 years, the emphasis is on encouraging intentional and balanced screen use, with regular eye breaks and limitations on headphone or earbud use.

The recommendations suggest rewarding good behaviour with non-screen rewards, such as time outdoors or socialisation, which benefit eye health and well-being.

The researchers hope their recommendations are seen alongside existing guidelines for home screen use.

“I hope these informed recommendations spark off discussion and that they are a supportive document for teachers and kaiako, to help students benefit from using technology but with less risk than some currently face,” Cullen says.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has recently called for urgent discussion and regulation of digitisation of education.

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