First, Do No Harm

When I send my children to school, I imagine that I am sending them into an environment where caring professionals are encouraging and challenging them to learn new ideas and engage in new experiences, anxious to open my kids’ eyes to new possibilities. I am counting on teachers to provide understandable connections to what the kids already know and help them create a bridge to their future studies. Fundamental to the teachers’ efforts, I imagine, is an overarching concern for my children’s well-being.

So I confess I am baffled by the silence from teachers, when it comes to the health risks caused by daily classroom screen time. I would have expected educators to clamor for more information, call for medical and scientific support, and rush to mitigate the situation once they learned that daily use of digital devices poses serious health risks to their students. But that hasn’t happened, despite all the media attention and medical research that has recently been made available.

And the research is clear: daily computer use damages children. Myopia tops the list. The USC Roski Eye Institute, in its largest and most recent myopia study, showed that daily screen time is the likely culprit for childhood myopia doubling in our country.

Retinal damage (which can lead to macular degeneration and blindness) is next. Prevent Blindness America and voluminous medical researchers report that children’s eyes absorb more blue light than adults: the damaging HEV rays go straight to the back of a child’s eye.

Blurred vision, dry eyes and headaches. Obesity, sleeplessness and anxiety. Addiction. These are the side effects of children who spend their school days online and their evenings glued to their screens for homework. It’s all medically documented, and the research grows daily. (This is not hard-to-find, esoteric documentation; major news outlets across the country have covered the health hazards of screen time extensively over the past year. Search the phrases “computer vision syndrome,” “digital eye strain,” or “blue light damage.”)

But despite the wide distribution of information, in popular media and in scientific journals, teachers themselves have essentially remained silent about the pernicious health threats that are being imposed on their students. It is unnerving. Parents put their children in the daily care of teachers. And while there are many constraints facing educators, nothing should prevent teachers from protecting students from physical harm at school.

OSHA recognized the known dangers of screen time as long ago as the late 1990’s. There are OSHA safety regulations and remedies for teachers who feel they are at risk because of exposure to digital devices. Growing children using digital devices every day in school are facing even more serious health risks than adults. But they have no such protections.

Obviously, teachers can’t immediately impact the trends that are prescribed by boards of education and imposed by administrators, but teachers can get educated and share information about the harm that daily screen use is inflicting on their students, and themselves.

Choices can be made, for instance, to gather students around a table and have a discussion, instead using an instant classroom polling app. (We used to call that ‘raising your hand.’) Lesson plans need to be scrutinized, and collaboration with other teachers needs to take place. Unnecessary screen use, such as reading tens of pages online where no interaction is required, needs to be reconsidered. And homework needs to be offline, to ensure the good night’s sleep that is so crucial for growing children.

Ultimately, classroom screen safety is a matter exclusively for the department of health, because these are serious medical considerations that have lifelong ramifications. School administrators and boards of education are simply not qualified to make medical determinations for our children. Legislation is being drafted in Maryland right now to ensure that clinicians will define and address safe thresholds for the use of classroom digital devices.

However, since teachers are acting in loco parentis, in place of the parent, every day in their classrooms, it is imperative that they keep these screen safety issues in mind and protect their students. Of course our children need to master technology, but we cannot allow them to be injured in the process.


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