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

Students using computers in a classroom

Screens are everywhere: at home, at school—even gas stations! But 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 doing on the screen. 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, purposeful, and proportional. Digital media and technology are increasingly a part of our lives, but it's important to be 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.

We've outlined some important considerations to aid you in determining how to strike that balance, as well as linked resources for you, your students, and for families.

Be Purposeful About Screen Use


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. 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 that 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.


The why and how of tech integration are critical for positive outcomes. Sure, you 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. SAMR stands for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition. In the video below, you can hear a more detailed explanation from Puentedura himself if you'd like to delve into a framework for integrating screen time and digital media. You can also check out our article on SAMR and some simple tips to avoid common pitfalls.

Accessibility and Differentiation

Teachers with access to technology tools in the classroom can—and should—take advantage of screens when they can help with differentiation and content accessibility for a range of learners. Google Classroom users, for instance, can take advantage of apps such as Read Along and Reading Mode. And plenty of other tools offer ways to assign individually for easier differentiation and translation. There are also plenty of device-based ways to make learning more accessible, including text-to-speech capabilities, font adjustments, keyboard use instead of handwriting, and more. So incorporating screens as a way to be more inclusive is a great reason to include them.

Screens vs. Paper

In addition to clarifying why you're using a screen, it's also good to know if it will really improve learning outcomes. There may be times when using paper, perhaps to draw a model for a math problem, makes more sense than a screen. On the other hand, you might want to easily collect and record data, in which case a screen might make sense. 

One common concern is text-based assignments: 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? 

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. Consider the reading experience of young people who often skim, scan, and toggle between screens all day.

Defusing Distraction


According to our research, kids are picking up their phones an average of 72 times each day (up to almost 500 times at the extreme end) and fielding a median of 237 notifications. When at school, kids use their phones a median of 43 minutes each day. Phones are distracting! So in addition to the purpose and impact of screens, we have to weigh the pros and cons of personal devices. They can add to the learning experience, but they can also be incredibly disruptive.

That said, a clarified approach can go a long way. Students themselves report that they'd like to have clearer cellphone policies in schools. Whatever the cellphone policy is in your school or classroom, help students become more strategic about their usage by considering the following activities:

  • Develop clear classroom routines for devices, and if you use them for instruction, set clear expectations around their purpose and usage.
  • Help inform students about the pros and cons of screen use. You might have students read reports about increased screen-time usage and discuss what's gained and lost when life is so screen dependent.
  • Teach students about ways to increase productivity and focus using strategies like the Pomodoro technique.
  • Have students design a classroom experiment on the challenges of multitasking, or collectively count the flood of everyone's phone notifications.
  • Align your classroom approach to cellphones with your school's or district's Acceptable Use Plan (AUP). Here are some examples and tools:

Resources and Tools for School and Home


As important as media balance is, it's a bit of an abstract concept, and there are lots of considerations in the mix. Here are some concrete steps you can take to make media balance an integral part of your students' learning.

Have your students pledge to be 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) media use. 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. 
  • Device Advice (Grades K–5): Set expectations about how devices will be used and cared for as you onboard students.
  • Digital Well-Being (Grades 6–8 and Grades 9–12): Help students understand how devices are designed to be distracting and learn strategies to safeguard their well-being. 

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. Available in Spanish and English.
  • 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. 

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.


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

Paul Barnwell

A New Hampshire-based handyman, writer, and hobby farmer, Paul Barnwell is a freelance contributor to Common Sense Education. Paul lived and taught high school English in Louisville, Kentucky, for 13 years, where he embraced bluegrass music, barbecue, and horse racing. He's been published in the Atlantic online, Education Week, and Harvard's Ed. magazine, among other outlets. Paul and his wife, Rebecca, now reside in central New Hampshire.