COMMENT:

Everyone who looks after little children knows how quickly they take to touchscreen technology. Well before school age they figure out how select and swipe images, find the games they want and play them for as long as they are allowed. Responsible parents and childminders limit their time on a screen so that the child develops interests and skills in the real world too.

A group of those parents has become concerned that similar restrictions are not being enforced in schools. The group's founder, Auckland children's physiotherapist Julie Cullen, who has four children, says some schools are exceeding guidelines for "moderate use", which advise no more than 25 minutes a day for children in primary school, rising to no more than half the day in secondary school.

"Our local school has higher screen use than I would like to see," she told Herald readers on Tuesday, "By year 9 and 10 (forms three and four previously) 90 per cent of the learning is on screen." That sounds astounding until it is realised how much time secondary school pupils previously spent working with books. But are screens as educational as books?

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It might be telling that yesterday we reported the NZ Qualifications Authority has abandoned putting exams online for non-literary subjects such as maths, science and geography.

Students found it easier to use mathematical symbols and formulas and draw maps and diagrams on paper than on screens. Unsurprisingly, the result was different for subjects that largely involved writing. In subjects such as English, 95 per cent of students preferred doing the exam online.

Screens make writing much easier, so much so that handwriting is a rapidly deteriorating art. Writing email or text has displaced a great deal of spoken conversation, by telephone and even face-to-face. When we also consider the speed and range of research online, it becomes less astounding that as much as 90 per cent of learning in secondary schools is happening online.

Yet it does not seem educationally ideal. Face-to-face interactions, speaking and listening, discussing, debating and the concentration developed by written note-taking, are surely more stimulating for both intellectual and social development than work on a screen. The younger the child the more important human interaction would seem to be.

At primary school, time spent on digital devices should certainly be limited.

Educational research does not provide much useful guidance so far. An OECD report last month said the research was not sufficiently conclusive to support guidelines on optimal screen use and online activities.

However, it suggested taking precautions such as switching off screens an hour before a child's bedtime and designating times (dinner) and locations (bedroom) where screens are not permitted.

The Ministry of Education is keeping "a watching brief" on the evidence for restricting screen time in schools and so far the evidence suggests the time on digital devices does little harm to children's mental wellbeing. But wise minders and teachers of infants will not wait for the evidence. They will limit screen time and engage the child in things real.

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