In the age of smart tech, how much is too much screen time?

Greenwich Time (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - BOB HOR­TON

Our smart watches are con­nected to our smarter phones, which can also send com­mands to our kitchen ap­pli­ances and home ther­mostats while we check the weather or take self­ies to feed In­sta­gram.

We can even see and talk to the strangers ring­ing our door­bells as we lie on far­mon­i­tor­ing flung beaches. And, of course, the Rus­sians are it all, in­clud­ing this column. (Boris and Natasha, I know you’re out there.)

Is it time to re­visit the im­pact and ap­peal of liv­ing in or on the 24/7 web? Or, to put it an­other way, what have we done to our kids? They are wired at home, at

friend’s houses, and in­creas­ingly at school. And we adults are too busy Snapchat­ting to no­tice. Is this re­ally healthy?

Per­haps the an­swer lies where the con­nected phe­nom­e­non started and is con­tin­u­ally souped-up: Sil­i­con Val­ley. Na­tional pub­li­ca­tions have re­ported re­cently that some of the best and bright­est tech­nol­o­gists and ex­ec­u­tives are se­verely lim­it­ing their chil­dren’s screen time. They are so se­ri­ous about it that nanny con­tracts (who even knew there were such things?) have clauses with rules about screen use, both by the nanny and his/her charges. Of course, th­ese par­ents are send­ing the ul­ti­mate mixed mes­sage by ar­riv­ing home still teth­ered to their own de­vices.

Ac­cord­ing to ar­ti­cles in The At­lantic and The New York Times, some pri­vate schools fa­vored by the Sil­i­con Val­ley elite have com­pletely elim­i­nated ed­u­ca­tional and per­sonal dig­i­tal de­vices for grades K-6. Some peo­ple re­fer to this as the “wooden toy” move­ment.

“On the scale be­tween candy and crack co­caine, it’s closer to crack co­caine,” said Chris Anderson, for­mer ed­i­tor of Wired mag­a­zine and now a CEO in Sil­i­con Val­ley. Quoted in The New York Times on the im­pact of the con­nected world, Anderson said he now has 12 rules for his kids, in­clud­ing no phone un­til high school, no screens in bed­rooms, con­tent block­ing, no so­cial me­dia un­til age 13 and screen time sched­ules en­forced by an app. Break­ing the rules is pun­ished by de­nial of screen ac­cess for 24 hours, the ul­ti­mate parental dis­ci­plinary weapon.

“We thought we could con­trol it,” Anderson told The Times. “And this is be­yond our power to con­trol. This is go­ing straight to the plea­sure cen­ters of the de­vel­op­ing brain. This is be­yond our ca­pac­ity as reg­u­lar par­ents to un­der­stand.”

To me, Anderson sounds a bit alarmist, but only a bit. I know what has hap­pened to my at­ten­tion span, and how many hours I frit­ter away play­ing Sudoku or lurk­ing on Face­book. But the for­mer Wired ed­i­tor did get me think­ing about Green­wich Pub­lic Schools and their re­liance on tech­nol­ogy-driven “per­son­al­ized learn­ing” to teach our kids.

Look­ing for re­as­sur­ance that “per­son­al­ized learn­ing” was more than just giv­ing ev­ery kid a tablet, I re­vis­ited the GPS strate­gic plan for 2015-2020.

(OK, I’ve been writ­ing for about 30 min­utes now and have far ex­ceeded my at­ten­tion span. Think among your­selves; I’ve got an ex­pert-level Sudoku game wait­ing for me on my iPhone.)

I’m back. I can­not say that the GPS doc­u­ment was very il­lu­mi­nat­ing. First, it is so loaded with edu-speak that read­ing it is tor­ture, like be­ing forced to watch school board meet­ings on Green­wich Com­mu­nity Tele­vi­sion. Plus, ev­ery other word or phrase is “strat­egy” or “strate­gic ini­tia­tive.” And, at the heart of this five-year plan one finds “ed­u­ca­tor eval­u­a­tion in­di­ca­tors” and “so­cial-emo­tional learn­ing and en­gage­ment pro­grams and stan­dards,” all in sup­port of a “The­ory of Ac­tion.”

When I was in el­e­men­tary school, my “the­ory of ac­tion” was to use men­tal telepa­thy to will the class­room clock ahead by sev­eral hours so I could go home.

We are now in the fourth year of this five-year plan, and I could not find the “strate­gic dash­board” that tracked progress against any of this gob­bledy-gook. I turned to a friend who is an el­e­men­tary school teacher and, there­fore, on the front lines of the “per­son­al­ized learn­ing” ini­tia­tive. Surely this teacher could ex­plain what it is and how the “The­ory of Ac­tion” is work­ing.

This friend asked fel­low el­e­men­tary school teach­ers what “per­son­al­ized learn­ing” means to them.

“It’s the next best thing. An­other dis­trict ini­tia­tive,” said one.

“Dis­trict has no mea­sur­able goals. I worry that test scores will de­cline,” of­fered an­other.

“More teacher prep time needed. Many K-5 stu­dents don’t have the abil­ity to man­age or pro­duce mean­ing­ful work. (They) don’t have the ma­tu­rity to di­rect their own learn­ing,” said a third.

The teach­ers’ com­ments were in­ter­est­ing, but not help­ful to one try­ing to un­der­stand how “per­son­al­ized learn­ing” has changed ei­ther the way Green­wich chil­dren are taught or how teach­ing has changed now that it is “per­son­al­ized.” Per­haps that is in­evitable when long-range plans are im­ple­mented by short-term su­per­in­ten­dents and school board mem­bers. With only 18 months left in this strate­gic plan’s time frame, there seems to be lit­tle con­sen­sus about what is be­ing done, let alone how well it is work­ing.

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