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Screen Time: In pursuit of a pencil and paper education in a digital society

Pride Lands childcare is strictly screen-free. Director Moses Ariama says today’s young people are missing out on learning through physical activity and play.

The average eight-year-old in New Zealand spends four hours a day staring at a screen. Worried about the potential ill-effects of technology-heavy lifestyles, some parents are opting out. National Correspondent Katie Kenny investigates.

Florian Franzmayr says it’s a “happy accident” his household is screen-free. He and his wife, Christine Wong, decided to cut screens after their eldest, now six, started at a Rudolf Steiner kindergarten in Christchurch.

Finley was four at the time and along with his younger sister, Ruby, regularly watched children’s shows on an iPad while Wong prepared meals. After learning about the kindergarten’s screen-free policy, Wong decided to introduce the rule at home, too. Surprisingly, the children didn’t complain.

“We saw such an improvement, not just in them being more relaxed and settled, but also more curious about other things,” Franzmayr says. “They would head outside and dig around in the backyard, picking up sticks and acorns and stones.”

Two-and-a-half years later, they’re not looking back. Finley and Ruby are thriving at the school, he says, which doesn’t introduce devices until age 12.

Occasionally, the children will come home asking about a film their friends have mentioned. The latest was Frozen. The family doesn’t have a television, but Franzmayr says they’re considering introducing a movie night once or twice a month.

He doesn’t pretend it’s easy to maintain a screen-free household and acknowledges it would be near-impossible if both parents had to work full-time.

But the family is one of many reacting to the near-ubiquity of screen technologies by seeking a low-tech lifestyle.

New Zealand is among the highest users of devices in schools in the world. With a new curriculum focusing on digital technologies and classrooms flooded with devices, some experts are worried the scales have tipped too far.

On a typical weekday, 15-year-old students spend more than two hours online after school; an increase of 40 minutes since 2012, according to an OECD paper published in January. More than a quarter of students are classified as “extreme internet users”, spending more than six hours per day online.

Technology use is on the rise among much younger children, too. Research suggests some pre-schoolers become familiar with digital devices before they are exposed to books.

Yet, little is known about the impact of this on children’s mental and physical development. Parents worry their children will fall behind without internet access while being warned screens are rewiring their brains.

Screen Time, a series by Stuff’s Katie Kenny, examines the use of screen technology by kids.

A generation of guinea pigs

“It feels like these kids are guinea pigs,” says an Auckland mother of three, who asked not to be named. Her eldest, now Year 9 at a central Auckland high school, was an avid user of devices through primary and intermediate, and at home.

“I feel she was rushed into the device being the answer. Now that she’s at a high school that’s more traditional, she’s finding it difficult. Her spelling isn’t great, her handwriting isn’t great. She feels she didn’t get ‘the basics’.”

Her younger two are at the same primary school; one in Year 4, the other is a new entrant. The school encourages students to bring their own devices from Year 3.

“I’m not anti-technology, but even my kids are saying this doesn’t feel right,” the mother says. “They’re not doing robotics or coding or anything exciting, they’re using Google Classroom and looking at YouTube clips. When I’ve asked [the school] why it’s using devices for everything, I’ve never received a good answer.”

The family has spent the last year looking for lower-technology schooling options, but most would involve moving suburbs and disrupting the eldest’s schooling.

“The lucky ones can afford to pay for a school where they do less with devices. I just wish I had a local school that had the same kind of values as me.”

“It feels like these kids are guinea pigs,” says one Auckland mother who’s uncomfortable with the amount of technology in schools.

Mount Eden’s Ficino School, a small, independent primary, is screen-free until Year 5 when it introduces students to laptops.

Principal Peter Crompton acknowledges students need to be able to use computers by the time they go to secondary school, but worries introducing devices too early can compromise their ability to concentrate in class.

“I think we’ll see a wave of people who will lack the ability to focus their attention for a long period of time. Whether that’s entirely down to computers, we don’t know, but computers will have played a big part.”

He’s right, in that while more research is needed, it’s well-known excessive use of personal, screen-based devices is associated with adverse health and behavioural outcomes such as obesity, attention difficulties, emotional problems, language difficulties, and poor sleep patterns. But what’s considered excessive?

The Ministry of Health in 2017 published the nation’s first screen time guidelines for under-fives: no sedentary screen time for children younger than two years and less than one hour a day for children aged between two and five. Those aged from five to 18 are recommended to spend no more than two hours a day on “recreational screen time”.

At two years, children who hadn’t adhered to the guidelines were more likely to be obese, have more illnesses, more visits to the doctor, lower physical motor skills, and exhibit hyperactivity problems later on, according to a report on the effects of screen time on preschool health and development.

“Children with lower screen time may be generally more active and have healthier behaviour patterns overall,” said the report, produced for the Ministry of Social Development with data collected by the University of Auckland from the Growing up in New Zealand study – a longitudinal study involving roughly 6000 children in the Auckland, Counties Manukau and Waikato District Health Board regions.

Julie Cullen, a paediatric physiotherapist and mother of four, is the founder of Sensible Screen Use, a group advocating for “moderate, purposeful and evidence-based use of digital technology by schools”.

Her main concerns are the lack of guidelines for school screen use among young children. While digital technologies can support learning and inclusion for children, especially those with behavioural or learning difficulties, she recommends proceeding with caution.

“I think in the early stages while children gain core skills, we need to be purposeful and evidence-based when introducing screens into classrooms.”

The Detail: Technology and the big shift to working from home.

While time spent watching television has been declining steadily since 2011, the 2016/17 New Zealand Health Survey found two-thirds of children aged two to four years had more than two hours of screen time per day. (This is consistent with Australian data, but considerably lower than then 3.6 hours of daily screen time observed among American preschoolers.)

Māori, Pacific and Asian children were all more likely than New Zealand European children to exceed the screen time guidelines. Children in areas of higher deprivation were also more likely to exceed the guidelines.

AUT’s Professor Elaine Rush, who’s spent 30 years researching health and education, points out there are flow-on effects from screen time that are too complex to quantify but worth taking into account.

“What’s a child-eating while they’re watching a screen? Are they eating mindfully? Are they eating nutritionally dense food?”

Too much screen time can encroach on time that could be spent outdoors, exercising. There are also concerns children are neglecting to properly exercise their eyes while using devices.

Moses Ariama, director of Pride Lands, says his centre doesn’t allow screens and instead focuses on teaching children old-fashioned life lessons.

In the heart of Wellington’s Mount Cook is the head office of Pride Lands, a childcare programme for children aged from five to 17. The carpet is covered in leaves that have fallen from indoor trees. Lion-related paraphernalia is everywhere; plastered to furniture, printed on couch cushions, adorning the walls.

Director Moses Ariama asks if I would like to play chess. “We also have Connect Four. And other, African games.” He points to wooden boxes scattered over what appears to be a boardroom table.

Ariama had a technology-free childhood in a small village in Ghana. “The world was our playground,” he says.

After studying biomedical sciences in the United Kingdom, work experience in hospitals turned him off a career in medicine. Instead, he moved to Australia where he was an extreme sports instructor and then to New Zealand, where he worked at various after-school and holiday programmes.

“I noticed people were using technology as a way to run an activity. What kind of parent would pay money for someone to sit their child in front of a television?”

In 2006, he started Pride Lands, which advertises itself as screen-free.

Before school, after school, and during school holidays, the centre offers “structured activities, fitness, social development programmes, adventures, and life skills,” Ariama says. Several of his 15 staff also work in schools with children who are struggling.

“The biggest problem I’ve found is [today’s children] don’t have anyone to teach them these ‘old-fashioned’ things. They’re not learning them at school, because they’re not part of the curriculum, and if they’re not learning them from their parents, who are too busy, they’re turning to technology. But many of them aren’t, shall we say, loading the right content.”

He’s not anti-technology, he clarifies. But he believes too much of it can dampen a child’s curiosity and creativity.

“At our centre, we play and play and play. All the children are incredibly fit and strong and capable and focused. Children are built to move.”

Ariama and his wife have two boys, aged nine and six. They’ve been told they won’t get phones until they’re 15. In the meantime, their only screen time at home is in the form of a weekly, family film.

“I want them to enjoy their childhood. After school, they play in the yard. They built a treehouse recently.”

Because of societal pressures, many parents don’t have the time or energy to do these activities with their children, he says. He hopes his programme can lighten their load.

“I love what I do. It’s not just a career but an opportunity to give these children the life they deserve and the life their parents want for them.”

What about parents’ screen time?

Earlier this year, Chief Education Scientific Advisor Stuart McNaughton published a paper on New Zealand’s literary landscape. It noted among 15-year-olds, literacy achievement levels have been dropping and wide disparities remain unchanged.

But it’s possible digital tools and platforms can also be part of the solution. There’s evidence that, under well-designed conditions, use of digital devices at schools can be associated with gains in writing for Māori and Pacific students.

Maria Corkin, a doctoral student at Auckland University’s School of Psychology, recommends if parents are allowing young children screen time, they’re “co-using” as much as possible. “Children learn best from screen media when parents use and view media together with their child, and scaffold their understanding.”

Parents attempting to reduce their children’s screen time should also pay attention to their own, she says.

Aside from setting a good example, it also reduces the likelihood of ‘technoference’ – where a device distracts from in-person interactions.

“If parents are frequently looking at a screen they may be less able to be responsive to their children, and responsiveness has long been shown to be important to young children’s language development.”

Associate Professor Cheryl Brown at Canterbury University has studied how technology facilitates and inhibits students’ participation in learning. She says it’s important to let older children, in particular, develop the ability to regulate their own behaviour.

“[Children and young people] are aware of issues around addiction and immersion. My worry is, if as adults we regulate them too much, we don’t help them develop critical skills they’ll need for the future.”

There’s value in expanding education through technology, she says. “Watching videos of places we’ll never go, or science experiments we could never do, there are all sorts of ways digital tools can be meaningful for learning.”

But she agrees it’s important for parents to be good role models.

“Families need to decide what their values are and how they’re going to do things. The same goes for schools.”

Like many parents, Ann Wilson, a mother of two now raising two grandchildren, allowed more screen time during Covid-19 lockdown. The children, aged 11 and 12, were doing schoolwork online and researching animals in their spare time.

“The internet opens up another world, but the other side of it is children can come across things they don’t understand or need to know at this stage.”

Usually, the Tauranga household is a low-technology one, but Wilson doesn’t rule with a heavy hand. She doesn’t need to. As soon as lockdown lifted, the children willingly ditched the devices to resume their normal, outdoor activities.

An Xbox – a birthday gift – has been used about three times in two years. “We just have too much other stuff going on,” Wilson says.

“We go on adventures!” I can hear a child pipe up in the background of our phone call.

Wilson explains: “We go to the beach a lot, we go on what we call adventures. Last weekend, we pitched a tent in the backyard and had a staycation. They both play soccer and squash. They do karate and in the summer, swimming lessons.”

Wilson has a Facebook account, and she occasionally checks work emails on her phone, but she doesn’t spend much time on devices in general.

“I’m of a different generation from today’s young mothers, so perhaps that’s got something to do with it.”

Auckland-based Taino Bendz founded the #Lookup movement, which advocates for parents and caregivers to have a phone-free day, encouraging them to engage with their children instead of being distracted by their devices.

Last month, Aucklander Taino Bendz gave up his job in the technology sector to launch PhoneSmart, a start-up focused on helping people to form healthy, digital habits. He also runs Phone Free Day, an initiative to help people put down their devices for a day.

His biggest concern isn’t with how children are using technology but with parents’ use of it.

“The other day, I was at the pool with William, who’s just turned five. There were 21 other adults there. For the entire time, 16 were on their phones. During his lesson, William looked up at me every other minute. It was just half a second of eye contact. I’d give him a smile, or a thumbs-up.

“I’m really concerned about what it does to a child to look up and see the back of a phone. Even giving the parents the benefit of the doubt, let’s say they were working, their behaviour signals to the child that the device is more important than them.”

With two young children, maintaining a low-technology household is hard work, Bendz admits.

“But it starts with us, as parents. When we come home, we put our phones in a drawer. If we really need to use them, we go into another room.

“The boys enjoy reading and doing puzzles and exercising, and that hasn’t come for free. Albert, my two-year-old, turns the kitchen upside down, but we involve him and his brother when we’re cooking dinner.”

Bendz, 32, bought his first phone at 13. It was a Nokia; he used it to text his friends and play Snake.

“If I played a lot in one day, it’d be about an hour. You grew tired of it. But now, it never ends. Smartphones aren’t phones, they’re supercomputers. And kids walk around with them in their pockets. That’s not something my child needs. At least, not yet.”


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