George Lucas Educational Foundation
Digital Citizenship

How Much Screen Time? That’s the Wrong Question

Instead of obsessing over the quantity of screen time, we should focus on improving the quality of it.
A girl hidden behind a tablet computer raises her hand.
A girl hidden behind a tablet computer raises her hand.

At the end of 2016, I found myself mentally exhausted and barely able to string together a coherent thought or formulate an original idea. As I swiped through my social media feeds for inspiration—or maybe procrastination—a nagging feeling hit. I needed a break from screen time.

Pediatricians, psychologists, and neuroscientists warn of potential negative consequences associated with constant mental stimulation as a result of interacting with our devices. Without a screen-free space for my brain to relax, stop firing, and just think, I felt incapable of significant mental processing. I could blame the technology for thwarting my attempts at creative thought, or I could blame myself for taking the easy route and using my devices to constantly stimulate my brain. Though I chose to blame myself, I am finding a lot of support for the idea of blaming technology when discussing the idea of screen time.

Mobile devices have the potential to provide amazing learning opportunities as well as great distractions. They can further social interactions to help us build stronger connections in our communities, or allow us to destroy relationships by hiding behind a screen. In the book The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education, authors Daniel Goleman and Peter Senge describe three essential skills for surviving in a society increasingly dominated by internet-enabled devices: focusing on ourselves, tuning in to others, and understanding the larger world. While the authors apply these concepts to the broader field of social and emotional learning, these same foci also apply as we address the issue of screen time with our students and children.

Inner Focus

Technology and mobile devices provide students with both ubiquitous access to information and unlimited distraction. The challenge is how to teach self-awareness and self-management. Do our students know how to control their devices instead of the other way around? Do they know what they need to do to maintain their focus and allow their brains to process the context around them?

In a recent iPad workshop with a group of middle school teachers, we explored features such as Guided Access and Do Not Disturb—which let you restrict your device to a single app and silence calls, alerts, and notifications, respectively—to support self-regulation. These settings provide students with a means to control their digital environments. By leveraging both the technology and active reflection, we can help students recognize what they need to do to be successful learners and realize when to put devices away.

Outer Focus

Two years ago, a third-grade teacher wrote an essay for The Washington Post about her regret at providing iPads to her students. She lamented her decision as she felt that the students quickly found themselves drawn to the illuminated screens instead of each other. A professor of writing and editing responded with this question: “How would we react to the worrisome, antisocial behaviors [the teacher] notes in her essay if we simply replaced the iPads in her descriptions with books?” The professor argued that both digital and analog media encourage individual rather than social behavior, and that we need to recognize the balance between the two with our students.

Ultimately, students need the ability to tune in to others in both the physical and digital worlds. In “Research Says Screen Time Can Be Good for Your Kids,” Jordan Shapiro, an edtech researcher, explains that teachers and parents often use restrictive mediation as a means to limit screen time. Through filters, parental controls, and the banning of devices, adults attempt to limit students’ screen time. However, in the process, they inadvertently send the message that adulthood equates to unlimited and unfettered access. Shapiro explains the need for instructive mediation—engaging with students to model desired and appropriate behaviors and interactions with screens. For students to develop the ability to understand the context of their device use, they need to observe positive social behaviors in the adults around them.

Other Focus

Beyond helping our students develop the inner focus required to know how to best manage their interactions with their devices, and the outer focus of what positive use looks like, we also need to nurture our students’ abilities to recognize the context in which their interactions occur—the other focus. Screen time discussions often focus on just that: the screen. However, this may prevent students from grasping how their actions fit within a broader system.

In a classroom setting, consider the potential of asking students to define how their device use impacts the class culture. What norms might the class decide to establish? Can the students identify different contexts where they may or may not want screens involved? What actions might the students take if they feel as though the norms of the class have been violated? How can they collaborate to seek out solutions to new problems that may present themselves? To help students to develop this other focus, Goleman and Senge say teachers need to scaffold this sort of smart decision making. By learning to recognize a larger system, students build a greater understanding of the implications and consequences of their actions in both the physical and digital worlds.

If we consider the skills of focusing on ourselves, tuning in to others, and understanding the larger world as a framework for our thinking, imagine how the conversation about screen time could shift away from the amount of time spent with devices and toward how students might use them to become more productive citizens in a networked and global society. What if, instead of asking our students to put their devices away, we instead ask them to consider how they might be using those devices to improve themselves and their community?

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Thomas Haun's picture

It has been said, "Kids should be seen and not heard." Well, with them sitting there on their devices, they are being seen, but are they not being heard. With all of the social media outlets today, they are more in likely being heard. The question might be, "Is what they are hearing or being heard of, worth any value?" To answer that question goes back to the beginning of this article, that it is or should be about quality face time -- not quantity. In addition, we need to communicate the moral and ethical aspects of using social media. With 21st century learning, students need to be using the technology that is available. Just not 20 hours a day. Scientists have said that the brain needs to be relaxing for a little while before going to sleep. If you think that you need a little inward stimulus -- read a good book.

Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Student & EdTechTeacher Instructor

Hi Thomas.

Thank you for the reply. You may be interested in the book, A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. Thomas and Brown argue that with these new technologies, students have the ability to engage in more collective learning. The question becomes whether we help them to both seek and find these opportunities.

I completely agree with you that students also need to the self-regulation to understand when to put the devices away. Again, this comes back to how we are modeling and supporting their acquisition of these new behaviors.

Thanks again for the reply.

P. Tarleton's picture

This article shed some new light on my ever conflicting struggle of to how much screen time is too much.
The comparison to having students read text books compared to a computer screen resonated with me. It struck me that reading a text book they would not have interaction with their peers. Where as with an online setting they may communicate with their peers about topics through comments and posts as we are doing on this article.

As I think about it I begin to think of how many hours I spent in classrooms as a child reading and never communicating with my peers about the subject we were studying. Today students are able to study and communicate with their peers about their course work by collaborating on shared assignments, or critiquing peers work through constructive feedback. Not only do they have the opportunity to collaborate with peers within their classroom, they also can collaborate outside the classroom and around the world. What an amazing time for these students to have such broad capabilities for interactions.

Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Student & EdTechTeacher Instructor

Thanks for sharing your reflection! The "book test" also resonated with me when I first read it. You may also like Lisa Guernsey's work as she also raises the point of considering the context, the content, and the child. This is such a nuanced discussion that is often presented in very black and white terms.

Today's children and students will only continue to exist in a world of increasing access. I think that we really need to consider how we help them to develop the skills to navigate this new realm in positive ways.

Thank you again for sharing your thoughts.

Dr.Priya Prabhakar's picture

At first, it's we the facilitators who need to widen the recognition we officiated to learning. When we could liberate educational process from the stipulations it has been set with regards to the curriculum, time frame, methodologies of learning, examining and evaluating, we could include both the individuality of the students and abundance of resources available through the digital devices in enabling them to be productive citizens of the globe.

"Productive Citizens" what does productivity here mean? It's not the ability of individuals to fit within the general framework and enabling economic gains to their self and to the nation. Productivity here means the scope enabled to every single individual of the globe to identify, nurture and contribute their individuality in the social progress of the globe that would enable us and the world with a purposeful & regulated economy.


Liberating education from the frameworks of knowledge and curriculum would enable us to include all forms of skill gain. It will enable us to recognise what a student present as his/her individual nurturance than restricting education within a restrictive, average and generalised knowledge that we have officiated through the common curriculum.


We need to change our mindset. There are ways inside the illuminated device to connect with people, the scope of connecting with people is much higher and wider in there.
Liberating the world from its generalised means to opportunities and living, we are widening the space for every single individual of the global population to be successful for their individuality without imposing them to a competitive environment that could trigger anti-social behaviour in them. Educating is not about surviving the system prescribed but about identifying and nurturing the uniqueness (individuality) within everyone that would ensure the world with its holistic development.

Education is not a process structured to meet the requirements and criteria of the labour market that certifies the ability of an individual to earn money. Education is a process that nurtures an individual to a responsible being with the raw material (Individual interest & skills)in them to a productive form that acknowledges the expertise of an individual in enabling the world with its social progress.

When we restrict education to what's been approved within its stipulated framework, we are neither facilitating education for its purpose nor scoping to the fullest use of technology that would advantage the student with freedom in accessing, designing and pursuing their learning.

Melanie Carmona's picture

I like the idea of "instructive mediation" for our kids, as well as modeling responsible technology use in various social situations. Of course, this means that we adults need to put our devices away and interact with one another. What a concept! I'd love to see a conscious use of phones in our society where people prioritize human-to-human interaction over technology.

Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Student & EdTechTeacher Instructor

Hi Melanie.

Thank you for the reply. Simon Sinek gave a great talk (or maybe a rant?) about the idea of instructive mediation for millennials. He argues that older generations cannot fault younger ones for not understanding social norms if they don't bother to model them -


sarahallen's picture

I am often confused by the idea that we need to stop our children from experiencing social media and technology simply because they might experience "too much" screen time. Isn't it our job, as educators, to teach students skills that will help them find success in life as productive members of society? We can achieve this by modelling the skills needed to self-regulate our screen time and use it appropriately. That said, how will they ever know what appropriate use is if we don't model it for them?

Melissa's picture

Good evening Thomas. We get so caught up in listening that we forget that there are students and we need to focus on that and getting them to make the right decisions in life for their future. We are living in a computerized world, and most everything is being done on computers. But we need to focus on making sure we have hard copies of everything because, computers can crash. This is a sad story,

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