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Screen Time in School: Finding the Right Balance for Your Classroom

Kids are on screens more than ever. How can we make classroom screen time more meaningful?

Paul Barnwell | March 8, 2022

Screens and digital media are everywhere, from everyday tech like TVs, phones, and gaming consoles to the laptops, tablets, Chromebooks, and other tech we use in school. Kids of all ages are consuming and producing more digital media than ever before. But is "screen time" actually the best way to describe, or measure, kids' media use?

Of course, not all screen time is created equal. How much screen time we get doesn't account for other factors like when, where, or most importantly what we're watching. Context matters, especially when it comes to classroom learning. Instead of focusing only on screen time, this article will cover how teachers and students can use devices and consume media in more deliberate and mindful ways -- what Common Sense calls "media balance."

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Simply put, media balance means using screens in a way that feels healthy, useful, and proportional. Digital media and technology are increasingly a part of our lives, but it's important that we're conscious of the media choices we're making. It’s also important to remember that things will vary quite a bit from person to person and class to class. There's no one formula that's right for every classroom.

Using Digital Media in Your Teaching

It's a double-edged sword: Students and teachers have more access to digital media than ever before. How can we make informed decisions about what -- and how much -- media we choose for our students during class time? Because so much instruction shifted online during the pandemic, many of us have become overly reliant on screens and digital media.

As a veteran teacher, this school year has been instructive for me. Some of my own classroom media choices have worked out well, like when I’ve used TED-Ed videos to spark students' interest or to review content. But other choices, like posting too many assignments to Google Classroom, have backfired, with glazed-over, disengaged teenage faces staring into their Chromebooks for yet another assignment.

In fact, my tech-free days -- where all activities are completed on paper, and with face-to-face interaction -- have felt especially refreshing and productive. Those "old school" lessons haven’t necessarily been pedagogically groundbreaking, but they've helped restore some balance to the overall learning experience in my classroom. My students even told me how much they appreciated the change of pace, and that they're open to more screen-free days moving forward.

How You Implement Digital Media Matters

Naturally, how much digital media you use in the classroom -- and how you use it -- should depend a lot on the ages of your students and what you're teaching. In general, while younger children shouldn't engage with as much digital media, older students can handle a bit more. Some topics like typing, coding, or computer science will obviously be more dependent on screens. Other activities like reading, for example, could sometimes be done on a screen, though may not offer any benefits. Overall, it's essential to think about whether digital media and technology are enhancing students' learning, or potentially even detracting from it.

Literacy and Digital Media -- Reading on Digital Devices

Whether you teach language arts or any other subject, it's important to consider how reading on a screen (vs. reading on printed paper) may impact students' reading comprehension and literacy development. Most research leans toward the notion that students of all ages tend to comprehend more of what they read when it's on paper, vs. on a screen. However, recent research on the topic suggests that digital books with features that enhance the text could potentially strengthen students' reading comprehension.

So what does this mean for teachers? If you're offering students a text in a digital format, consider the context and ask yourself questions like: What kind of device and platform will students use to access the text? Are distractions just a click away? Does the platform have features to enhance students' comprehension? Does it have accessibility options for a range of learners? Does it offer students personalized recommendations for other high-interest texts, or otherwise enrich kids' reading experience? If not, could reading the text in print actually be more useful? If you do end up going the digital route, be sure to check out this Common Sense article: The Best Digital Library Apps for Students.

As a teacher, you can also consider doing some of your own action research in your classroom: Compare your class's comprehension with print vs. digital texts. Poll your students to see what they prefer. Reflect on your own reading habits and tendencies. If you're like me, you might notice a huge difference between how fast and well you read on a phone or laptop versus a paper magazine or book. Now consider the reading experience of young people who often skim, scan, and toggle between screens all day.

Using the SAMR Model to Make the Most of Classroom Technology

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As teachers today, we have so much digital media and so many digital tools at our disposal. It's never been simpler to share video links, post assignments online, or use Kahoot to give a quiz, among countless other choices. But what's often missing is a deeper consideration of the why and how -- the nuts and bolts of tech integration and instructional planning. Sure, we can incorporate a digital tool, but does that mean it'll be effective for kids' learning?

The SAMR model, developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura, offers a framework you can use to think critically about how you're integrating digital media and technology in your classroom. The S, A, M, and R stand for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition. In the video above, you can hear a more detailed explanation from Puentadura himself, but here's a quick breakdown with some hypothetical examples of my own:

Substitution means simply replacing traditional activities and materials with digital versions. For example, suppose I turned my vocab and grammar worksheets into PDFs, posted them on Google Drive, and also asked students to submit the completed worksheets there. In this case, the instruction and students' learning isn’t altered much, since it happens in the same way -- just online.

Augmentation means incorporating interactive digital enhancements and elements to learning content. To extend my vocab and grammar example, say I converted the worksheets into Google Docs. Students could now edit the doc and do the work online. But I could also add links to helpful videos or other resources about comma usage, right in the doc where they're the most beneficial to students. In this case I’ve used technology to augment -- but not change -- the content of the lesson.

With Modification, a digital tool transforms the learning tasks into something more than they were originally. For example, instead of completing the worksheets alone, I might give students a collaborative task, like commenting on a partner's Google Doc with questions, ideas, or suggestions. Or I might even ask students to use a different online discussion tool altogether to create and share their own vocabulary learning strategies -- which they could then share with the class.

In Redefinition, digital tools enable a complete reimagining of the learning activity. My original vocab and grammar worksheet could be transformed to include different or extended learning outcomes. Imagine students connecting with authors online or on social media to chat about their writing process and word choice as part of researching and creating their own vocabulary lists to study.

As you can see, the SAMR model can help us be more mindful and purposeful about how we use digital media and technology. Keep in mind, there's nothing inherently wrong with substitution-level tech -- sometimes it just makes sense, whether for the sake of time or simplicity. But if my curriculum is packed with only substitution-level media and tech integration, then it might be good to question a few things: Is this effective for my students' learning? And could it be detrimental toward supporting healthy media balance in my classroom?

Managing Smartphones in the Classroom

Smartphones are a monumental challenge for teachers and schools. As I've written about elsewhere, the issue is complex. On the one hand, should we use heavy-handed approaches to police all of the distractions and multitasking? Or on the other, is it possible to harness the potential of smartphones as learning tools? Perhaps something in-between? We all have our own opinions on the matter, but one thing's for certain: Smartphones are here to stay, whether we like them or not.

According to a 2019 report from Common Sense Media, 8- to 12-year-olds averaged just under five hours of screen media a day, and teenagers viewed about seven and a half hours daily. The sheer amount of time that young people spend with digital media -- outside of school -- is staggering. This fact alone may impact how teachers and schools develop smartphone policies aimed at helping students find more media balance.

Personally, I've noticed how quickly most students default to using their phones at every possible opportunity. One solution is for teachers to strive to create lessons that are engaging enough so that students can't or won't be tempted to use their phones during class.

On the other hand, teachers might consider helping students become more mindful and learn to self-regulate their attention. This is, of course, easier said than done (and a personal growth area for me as an educator!).

You might have students read reports about increased screen-time usage and discuss what's gained and lost when life is so screen-dependent. Perhaps you could even conduct or design a classroom experiment on the challenges of multitasking, or collectively count the flood of phone notifications. Or teach students about ways to increase productivity and focus using strategies like the Pomodoro technique. And of course, Media Balance and Well-Being is one of the central topics covered in Common Sense's Digital Citizenship Curriculum, which has free lesson plans, videos, and activities for every grade level.

Nevertheless, sometimes I sense that my own classroom media balance is far too skewed toward passive screen use. There's always the option to take a tougher line and just prohibit all phone use during class. But -- while it's not easy -- taking the time to help students build the skills and habits of mind they'll need to independently manage and self-regulate their own media use is well worth the effort.

Helping Families Manage Screen Time at Home

Media balance is probably most important in students' lives outside of school. All of us, including the families in our school communities, are faced with countless media choices every day. Teachers can play an important role in helping families find media balance at home. Here's what you can do as a teacher:

Subscribe to Common Sense's weekly education newsletter. Every newsletter includes tips and resources you can share directly with families, on everything from online safety tips to advice around managing kids' screen time and finding media balance at home.

Encourage families to sign up for Common Sense's free Tech Balance text messaging program

  • Families who subscribe get one to two text messages each week with simple and actionable tips on screen time, media picks, learning with technology, support with the home-school connection, and more. 
  • Families can text the word "KIDS" for English or "FAMILIA" for Spanish to the number 21555. (Note: Message and data charges from mobile providers may apply.)
  • For a simple way to share this program with parents and caregivers, you can send them to this helpful page: If opened on a desktop, they'll get a QR code. Once they scan it with a phone, it'll automatically open their messages app -- they just have to hit send. If opened from a mobile device, the messages app opens automatically.

Do some of your own family outreach. Encourage media balance as a school community by promoting #DeviceFreeDinner with these short, funny videos. They're a great way for families to spark conversations about media balance, whether at the dinner table or any other time. Common Sense Media's article, How Much Screen Time is OK for My Kid(s)? can also be a helpful resource for families.

Next Steps: Media Balance in Your Classroom

Now that you have a better understanding of media balance, what can you do? As important as media balance is, it's a bit of an abstract concept. Here are some concrete steps you can take to make media balance an integral part of your students' learning:

Have your students pledge to being safe, responsible, and respectful digital learners. Use these customizable contracts to help students commit to being their best selves both online and in person.

  • For grades K-5, our Digital Learning Pledge helps you set a positive culture of digital citizenship from the beginning of the year.
  • For middle and high school, our Digital Learning Agreement helps you discuss expectations for online communication, privacy and safety, device use, and more.

Bring media balance into your curriculum. Common Sense's free Digital Citizenship Curriculum has Media Balance and Well-Being lessons for every grade level. Feel free to explore them all, but here are a few standout lessons to consider teaching to your class:

  • How Technology Makes You Feel (Grades K-2): Help younger students learn to listen to their feelings during (and after) using media. Plus, give them tips on what to do when media doesn't give them a good feeling.
  • My Media Choices (Grades 3-5): Have students start to think about the media choices they're making, and the impacts of those choices. Students will be able to develop their own definition of what "healthy" media balance looks like.
  • Digital Media and Your Brain (Grades 6-8): Ask your middle schoolers to consider how digital media might make some people feel "addicted," then have them consider how they can develop healthy habits for themselves when it comes to digital media use.
  • The Health Effects of Screen Time (Grades 9-12): Have high schoolers dig into some of the research around media use, then reflect on their own experiences around screen time and media use. 

Reinforce Media Balance at Home. Share these helpful guides for families to keep everyone informed and on the same page. You can customize these templates to best suit your needs.

  • In-Person Learning Daily Routines (Google Doc): Use this customizable schedule to outline daily learning schedules, give families important information, and check in with how students are feeling each day. Available in Spanish and English.
  • Dinner Discussion (Google Doc): Help parents and caregivers stay informed about their students' progress with these helpful conversation starters.
  • Devices for Learning: A Guide for Families (Google Doc): Customize and share this handy guide to make sure families have all of the information they need about any school-issued devices that students might bring home.

Lead and second image courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.