For many of us, it doesn’t seem that long ago that homework was written by hand or tapped out on a typewriter.
Even when computers were launched into the mainstream, they weren’t common features in households for a long time. Most activity that used computers revolved around learning to use the device itself, such as typing, coding, and word processing. Computers started to offer time benefits for getting homework and similar tasks done, for those who were lucky to have access to them.
Similarly, mobile phones were just that. They were for making calls, end of story. Now we run businesses – and practically our entire lives – from smart phones and mobile devices. Our kids do their homework on screen-based devices, and even if parents wanted to enforce screen time limits in line with health recommendations, it’s hard to balance that with the requirements from many schools for children to use online platforms to submit homework and assignments.
With this in mind, how should parents address screen time limits with respect to what the screen is being used for?
A screen is a screen
The general recommendation is a maximum of 2 hours of screen time each day for kids aged 2–18 years (some recommendations are incremental according to age), with children under 2 years recommended to have no screen time at all. Given the increase in amounts of homework as kids age, sticking to screen time limits means a reduction in recreational screen-based activities.
So, should homework count as screen time or be deducted from the amount of “available” screen time?
Director of Education at MediaSmarts, Matthew Johnson, says ‘A screen is a screen. Even if you’re using it for good reason, it does count as time when you’re not being active’. If you look at screen time from a health perspective, the limit is about the amount of time spent doing sedentary activities (which can be linked to obesity in young people) rather than the reasons those devices are being used. Doing homework is generally a sedentary activity.
Homework is increasingly being done online. The Atlantic reported in 2018 that a federal study found 70% of American teachers regularly assigned homework requiring a computer and internet connection at home, a statistic that increased to 90% for high school. Whether you see this as a problem or not, it doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon.
Brown University research shows that children who spend more time using screen-based devices for recreational activities are less likely to finish homework tasks and have less interest in learning generally (Boston Globe, 2016). It seems logical to suggest that screen limits incorporate homework time together with recreational time to avoid encouraging excess use of screen-based devices.
However, more recent studies conducted by JAMA Pediatrics shows that the overall amount of screen time is not as much to blame as the type of usage of screen-based technology (Time.com, 2019). For example, the study found that watching TV (on average more than 2 hours daily for teens aged 15–19 years) was linked with lower language and maths test scores, with teenagers experiencing this at a higher rate than younger children.
So, what’s the verdict?
Like with all aspects of parenting, we believe that screen use is something each family will make their own decisions on. We believe in balance, so somewhere between what your family needs and what is recommended by health authorities is probably a good idea. Rather than focus on how much time your kids spend on screen-based devices, focus on making screen time an intentional activity. If they know that their allotted screen time (whether it strictly abides by health recommendations or has a bit of wiggle room) includes homework, then they may just be more selective about what they do with the rest of their screen time.