Left to Their Own Devices: Not All Screen Time Is Created Equal

Learn about the difference between passive and active screen time and how to integrate more active screen time.

Grades K-12 10 min Resource by:
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There tends to be a negative association with the words “screen time” when we hear them or use them. Why is that? What does screen time even mean? In the most general sense of the term, screen time is the viewing of anything with a screen. This could include, but is not limited to, televisions, tablets, computers, smartphones, etc. When we use the term screen time with our students, it is not usually helpful because it does not inform us about what is happening on or being done on the screen. The screen itself is not what is important; rather, the importance lies in the content that is being displayed, interacted with, or created on the screen. Therefore, using “screen time” to describe everything associated with the use of a screen would be like using the word “food” to describe all meals, everything we eat, and all eating habits in which we engage. There are many different types of food and eating habits, both healthy and unhealthy. Not all foods are created equal, just like not all screen time is created equal.

Passive vs. Active Screen Time

There are two main types of screen time that students engage in: passive and active. Passive screen time includes cognitively and physically inactive use, where the viewer is just passively receiving information. Sometimes, this is referred to as “vegging out” and includes things like scrolling through social media without ever engaging in it or watching a show or movie. On the flip side, active screen time includes engaging in physical and/or cognitively stimulating activities, like exercise videos or applications, live Zoom discussions, programming, video games, etc. There is a big difference in cognitive thought and engagement when passively watching a movie on a screen compared to using a device to create a movie.

As a result of the current pandemic, screen time has increased. Technology is being used for teaching and learning, social interactions and connections, entertainment, and to keep us up to date about what is going on in the world. As teachers, we need to think about how to support our students in engaging in positive, active screen time. In sticking with the food analogy, it is similar to teaching healthy eating habits. There are those foods that are healthy all the time, and then there are those foods that are okay to eat sometimes. In order to remain healthy, students need a healthy diet of food, just like they need a healthy diet of active and passive screen time.

When designing and creating remote-learning lessons, assignments, and assessments, consider the following five ways to make your remote learning more active. If you model and create opportunities for students to engage in active screen time, students will be healthier, happier, and better able to make healthy decisions around their own screen time usage.

5 Ways to Make Your Remote Learning More Active

Not all content is created equal, and any content that is used or shared with students should always be in service to content standards, curriculum, and learning outcomes.

  • One place to check for quality content is Common Sense Media. They provide research, ratings, and reviews on shows, movies, games, and other digital media and technology choices, as well as EdTech Reviews. As a teacher, you can review content as well as teach your students how to review content for themselves.
  • Figure out if a resource or tool should be used for consumption or creation. Creation resources and tools tend to provide much more active screen time for students.
  • The speed of the media matters. Fast-paced, multi-angled media that changes shots every few seconds can cause overstimulation. Slow-paced media, like a one-shot, one-angle science demonstration video or read-aloud recorded by a teacher does not overstimulate, especially with younger children. If you are unable to make videos yourself, look for videos that include great content and fewer camera shots. For example, a live zoo camera feed or a read-aloud created by someone else. PBS KIDS has created an extensive archive of read-aloud videos, with readers like Michelle Obama, Kristen Bell, Christian Robinson, and more. You can access them on their Read-Along with PBS KIDS! YouTube channel.

How students interact with the media matters! The student experience will change based on the interactions that take place as a result.

  • During synchronous instruction, a teacher can take a passive viewing of a lesson and/or video and make it interactive by stopping/pausing and engaging students in some way every 3 to 5 minutes. Students might engage in whole-class or small-group discussions, react in the chat, answer a survey, or even jot their thinking/responses in a shared document.
  • During asynchronous instruction, a teacher could use a tool like Edpuzzle (Tips) to transform passive videos into an active experience.

Whether engaging in synchronous or asynchronous instruction, students should be able to use technology and school time to connect with their teachers, classmates, or possibly other outside staff or specialists. Doing school work alone is very different from engaging in a shared experience and then having conversation around it.

  • Check out the Create Community and Nurture Connections to Support Social and Emotional Learning collection of AVID Open Access articles to learn more about how to enhance digital collaboration and connections in your classroom.
  • Create opportunities for students to connect outside of official class hours. Students are missing lunch, recess, and social opportunities during remote learning. You might provide office hours, lunch bunch, or even digital coffee/friendship breaks so that students can have unstructured social time to connect.

Provide students with the knowledge and tools to create healthy habits that they can use even when they leave your class. Teach them the difference between active and passive screen time and about the positive and negative effects of different types of screen time.

  • Screen time should not cause bodily harm. Teach students how to recognize if time on a screen—active or passive—is having negative effects on their sleep, movement, relationships, etc.
  • Help students develop healthy habits when they are using screens. Help them balance their days, organize their content, and decrease the distractions around them or on their screens.

Individual students have different needs, likes, and dislikes. During face-to-face learning, teachers will differentiate and/or provide students with choices in how they receive information and/or share their learning. The same needs to be true during remote learning.

Remember that increased screen time is not necessarily bad, and it is almost unavoidable during our current times. When used well, technology can be empowering and provide opportunities for students, teachers, families, and friends to connect with others and in ways that were never before possible. The power is in how we use the screen.