Children and screens

Smartphones and other electronic devices can disrupt children's sleep even if the device is just in the same room as the sleeping child.

Credit the Madison School District for tackling one piece of the nettlesome problem of children and screens by launching a pilot project to cut off some or all wifi access to students at four district schools.

The evidence is clear that parents — including me — haven’t yet figured out how to limit their children’s use of an ever-expanding universe of device-delivered media, and I, for one, will take all the help I can get.

But like most everything else in education, if the pilot project is to lead to sound guidelines for what devices students can have in school and what they can use them for, parents will have to be more than just bystanders.

I’m not exactly an early adopter of new technology (among my birthday presents were a turntable and a Kenny Loggins album), but I try to be as clear-eyed as I can about the many benefits of a smartphone in every backpack and on-demand video in every living room.

My son, for example, uses a graphing calculator app to help him do his homework. When he babysits his sisters, he has instant access to his parents.

The Disney Channel can be a great babysitter when a father working at home needs to finish his newspaper column. But no teen I know of has six hours of algebra homework a day, or experiences crises in babysitting extensive enough to require six hours of texting mom and dad. And if I needed six hours outside of the time my kids are in school to write a column, I wouldn’t be writing five of them a week.

And yet six hours and 40 minutes is how much time American teens are spending, on average, with screen media every day, according to a 2015 study by Common Sense Media.

This is maybe not surprising given that the year after releasing its report, the nonprofit group released survey results that show parents of children 8 to 18 years old use non-work-related screen media for almost eight hours a day, on average.

Putting limits on devices in school is a minefield for districts because it’s not just students who object to being deprived of their devices; it’s parents, too — especially when it means being disconnected from their kids.

Certainly parents have a right to provide — and districts a responsibility to consider — feedback about school device-use policies.

But these are the kind of decisions we elect a school board and hire professional educators to make. I also trust that they don’t need my input to safeguard my kids’ well-being for several hours every weekday.

Over the past week I’ve been pushing for my family to take a cue from the children’s picture-book heroes, the Berenstain Bears.

In 1984’s “The Berenstain Bears and Too Much TV,” Mama Bear gets fed up with Brother and Sister bears’ zombie-like fealty to television and imposes a weeklong, family-wide TV blackout, during which they do all kinds of rewarding, non-screen-releated things, including shopping, riding bikes, watching tadpoles and staring at the night sky.

Think of it as an early version of a device “cleanse.”

At the end of the week, the bears have a better sense of when to set limits on their TV use, and a better appreciation for the life that lies outside it.

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Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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