Screen time limits are outdated – the role of technology in children’s lives has changed, say Digital Teens researchers

It would be easy to frame this as a “generational conflict”: the study conducted by a team of Brno experts from the Department of Educational Sciences at the Faculty of Arts at Masaryk University shows that when it comes to using technology, children are often ahead of their parents and teachers and are more efficient. However, the researchers chose not to go down this route. It’s just times have changed, that’s all. So how do you avoid being a Luddite hindering a child’s development while making sure that the new generation is not glued to the screen 24/7?

Pre-Covid, going online and creating an attractive presentation was an interesting plus. During the pandemic, it became a sheer necessity. “There is now an entire generation of students for whom remote online work is nothing out of the ordinary, just business as usual. They are way ahead when it comes to using technology and this could have far-reaching implications in the future, beyond what we can foresee today,” say Jiří Zounek and Libor Juhaňák, two of the three authors of Life and Learning of Digital Teens, a book based on a three-year study of a topic that has long been the focus of their department. (The third author, Klára Záleská, was not available at the time of the interview.)

You would be wrong to think that these children are growing up with the “digital nomad” mindset or that they prefer distance learning, though. “What it mostly means is that they have a different approach to technology in their lives. While we adults are used to ‘switching’ between the online and offline worlds, the new generation are online natives: they are growing up holding smartphones and iPads,” says Zounek, pinpointing the root cause of many domestic arguments and misunderstandings between children and parents. 

Let’s get something clear before we dive in: Can you please explain why your research on technology does not cover the Covid times?
Jiří Zounek (JZ): We completed our project three months before the start of the pandemic, so it reflects the pre-Covid era. Our data perfectly showed many of the issues and complications that we have later seen emerging in schools and families, such as the lack of experience in parents who thought technology was only for fun. When our teenagers worked on a school project or were learning English by listening to their favourite band on YouTube, their parents didn’t usually show much understanding, simply because this was something they had never experienced themselves. The pandemic just heightened the tension. Other studies have shown that parents had to adjust to the new reality. They became more involved in what was going on at school and distance learning also gave them a peek into the actual classes. Some of them were very surprised at how much is on a teacher’s plate during a class or that teachers were not always coping with online teaching very well. Even before the pandemic, we knew that while teachers relied on technology to prepare presentations and find sources, document sharing and tools for online group projects were much less frequently used. There were certainly exceptions to this, but many teachers went into the pandemic unprepared for what awaited them. 

What was your motivation to start such a large-scale project in 2017?
JZ: We were inspired by other countries, such as Norway, where “digital skills at school” is much more commonly understood as something more than giving the child a tablet during class. Children have access to tablets and smartphones during breaks and at home; they live with them, just like adults do. You need to look at this from a broader perspective. Teenagers learn when they are playing, which is why our research had such a broad scope and focused on the children, their parents and teachers and different settings. We asked the children to take notes about their technology usage over a week, recording why, when and which technologies they used in half-hour slots. Surprisingly, they took this very seriously and we could see the blank slots during school hours, confirming what we already knew from secondary analyses of international studies: that technology at school mostly means teacher presentations, not students learning through technology. Outside the classroom, the children would describe watching YouTube or Instagram for a while, but then they would go to an event with friends and completely ignore their devices. You could see how important time with their friends was for them and the patterns of family functioning, including how parents thought technology should be involved in their children’s lives. At any rate, it was obvious that technology was mostly being used outside of school. 

And what is the level of digital skills among Czech children?
Libor Juhaňák (LJ): One of the impulses for our research was the results of the 2013 international ICILS study, which looked at the computer literacy of students in the 8th grade of compulsory schooling. Czech students ranked first out of all the participating countries. While this became a hot topic at international conferences for a while, there was no follow-up research that would dive deeper into the results. Later, more thorough analyses of the data showed that on average, our results were good because Czech children have outstanding essential skills but when you focus on the creative use of technology and using it as a tool for your original work, things don’t look quite as rosy. Further studies have shown that these are skills that children mostly develop outside of school, but their classes are not very helpful in this regard. A lot depends on their extracurricular activities and on what they do in their free time. Outside of school, they get a chance to experiment because it’s not a problem if they do something wrong or if they fail the first time. They are also not working on a strictly defined assignment that only has one correct solution and this allows them to try different approaches. It is this freedom to experiment that is crucial for learning and finding strategies that work.

Children are the digitally literate ones in the family, then?
LJ: It depends. Our sample included children who were not so enthralled by technology. There were fifteen-year-olds whose use of technology was very restrained and they were happy when they could avoid it completely. In general, though, you are right: the child is often the leading voice in the family when it comes to technology. 

Are the children aware of this?
JZ: Yes, they are. We were often surprised by the family disagreements that surfaced in our research and wondered why these seemingly trifling issues were such a big deal. But there was a lack of understanding between the generations where parents dug their heels in or were unable to communicate the heart of the argument to one another. Sometimes, technology just served as the lightning rod and the root cause was in the family functioning and relationships. 

Let’s be more specific. I can still remember the parenting rule “an hour of computer time a day” but as children now have smartphones and tablets they use for school and all manner of everyday tasks, do such rules still make sense?
JZ: You really have to realise how much life has changed. When a child is buying a bus ticket on their phone, you can hardly count that into the hour of screen “fun time”, and at the same time, you cannot constantly hover over your child to check whether they are having fun or learning. Consider the transformations in our family lives. When I was a child, we would spend the evening together watching the news or the night’s show. Mobile technology allows you to be in the same room and still apart: one person is doing something on their phone, another doing something on their tablet, and the parents are answering work emails or online shopping. The children are chatting with their friends, who might be from other countries. One of the frequent complaints from parents is that their children don’t talk to them, while the children oppose that they are, in fact, “home” – this is a common cause for arguments. The children do not perceive the online and offline worlds as two separate entities and switching from one to the other comes quite naturally to them, which means the range of activities on their phones is much broader than their parents imagine. 

In our interviews, we would come across situations where children would be reading their compulsory literature when the parent storms into the room, starts berating them for being “on their phone again” and demands to be shown the screen – and then feels embarrassed when they see a book. The children are often quite understanding, they know that things were different when their parents were young although they would appreciate a more understanding approach. On the other hand, some of our teenagers said they were actually glad that their parents force them to put their devices aside.

So the dominant device for children is a smartphone?
JZ: Yes. It’s a regular part of their life and the smartphone is usually the device that’s just theirs, instead of having to ask their parents to borrow a laptop or share it with someone else. And don’t forget that these interviews took place in 2018 and 2019. The use of mobile digital technology has likely become even more prevalent since then. 

If technology is this ubiquitous, how do you decide on a “healthy level” of technology use?
LJ: You strike for the happy medium, just like with anything else, and crucially, you focus on communication. The data shows us that children who use electronic devices very often or very infrequently achieve much lower scores than those with average screen time, and this is true for technologies both at home and at school. However, there is no “right” number of hours. It makes sense to monitor the situation and be aware of how your child spends their time – both on their devices and otherwise. That’s the starting point of any discussion about high-risk behaviour. The families who took this approach achieved more meaningful use of devices and avoided conflicts. You simply need to take an interest, even in things that might be completely foreign to you, such as TikTok and Instagram, and talk with your child about them openly. 

But what if you are all alone in the same room with everyone on their own device, and the parents are not happy about it?
JZ: First, if that’s what the parents do, they can hardly ask their children not to. Yes, it’s a difficult balance to strike, but when you see young children on a phone or a tablet in restaurants so that the parents can have “a moment for themselves”, we cannot be surprised when it comes back to bite us a few years later. If the screen time does not go hand in hand with other activities, the child will get used to that. On the contrary, if you involve your child in everyday tasks such as writing a shopping list and using it to shop, you might even learn a thing or two from them. On a different note, the children told us that they would not spend so much time on their phones if there was more for them to do and they could spend the time with their parents doing something that they found more attractive. Once again, it’s about striking a balance: you can’t organise every minute of your child’s time and it’s ok if they get bored sometimes, but it’s also important to spend your time with them in a way that is meaningful for them.

Let’s go back to the teachers: where do they stand when it comes to working with technology?
LJ: A mix of data sources (in Czech) tells us that on average Czech teachers use digital technology much less frequently than their counterparts in other OECD countries and they still mostly focus on preparing presentations. Using technology in projects, for teamwork or to get the children involved in the class is much less common. On top of that, it turns out that while technology is available in many schools, it is becoming obsolete, which is a problem that’s been a bit overlooked. It’s a relatively common situation that a school purchases the equipment and only then starts thinking about ways of using it. So shortly afterwards, they are back to square one and have to figure out how to update their tools so that they remain compatible and usable. It can be immensely helpful for the teachers if the school has someone to fulfil the role of a technology manager or ICT coordinator. 

And do they have them?
JZ: This differs from school to school. Imagine that a teacher has regular classes to teach and on top of that they should manage the school network and computers or assist other teachers with using technology in the classroom. Some schools have an ICT coordinator or advisor: that’s probably ideal because they can help other teachers implement the technology in their lessons and create a development plan and a purchasing strategy. Some schools pay an external company, but these only make sure the equipment is working and are not involved in using it in the classroom. In some cases, the IT teacher deals with this agenda, and sometimes it’s the school headteacher, which is probably the least desirable option. 

Does everything still revolve around the computer lab? 
LJ: Once again, there is a lot of variation. For example, the 2017 report (in Czech) by the Czech School Inspectorate mentions a minimum quality standard for digital technology at schools. As it turns out, many schools, particularly the smaller primary ones, do not meet this minimum standard. And yes, the computer lab is something we keep holding on to and that’s often a complication because we keep thinking about technology as something that only happens in this lab, which is often used solely for IT classes. While teachers of other subjects might be interested in using these labs, shifting classes between different classrooms is often a problem, so they give up. It’s much better when technology is a regular part of every classroom, just like books and other school supplies.

JZ: Consider this: before the pandemic, students would often be unable to use the school wi-fi, because a group log-in would overload it, even though this should have been resolved long ago under the “old” digital education strategy. We will see what changes might have been brought about by the pandemic. Another contributing factor is that there is no agreement within a school about what they expect from their students, so one teacher might assign a presentation as homework – but nobody has yet shown the students how to prepare one. This brings us back to an ICT advisor and a school-wide strategy.

And how do we actually teach digital skills?
LJ: The prevalent approach is probably still based on a single class where children learn IT skills. However, there have been many changes since we finished the study, including a substantial revision of the education framework for primary education including digital skills and the “new computer science (in Czech). The direction set by these changes is to allow digital technology and skills to penetrate all classes rather than limiting them to a single class called “IT skills”. It remains to be seen how schools will reflect the shift in the framework and whether the teaching of digital skills will actually change. The general attitude of schools and teachers to technology is crucial. Some schools in our study were trying to ban the use of mobile phones at school, which in our opinion is exactly what you shouldn’t be doing. Once again, you need to talk about this, at school as well as at home. Smartphones are here to stay, and they are an integral part of children’s lives, so what do you achieve by banning them? We believe that rather than banning them, schools should focus on teaching students how to work with them and find a good balance of technology in their lives.

JZ: A school is not a museum and can’t be completely out of touch with real life. It’s where children should be preparing for the future. Issuing a ban is easy; figuring out whether you could use a certain technology or app in the classroom, or agreeing on the rules for using it, is much more complicated. I am not going to start checking my emails in the middle of this interview because we are following certain – often unwritten – rules, and children must also learn to follow them. We discussed that teachers often use presentations in their classes. Well, the students’ answers showed that these presentations often aren’t very good, and they were very specific in their criticism. For example, each slide would contain a lot of text that the teacher would just read out loud. On the other hand, students really appreciate an engaging lecture with no technology at all. It’s definitely not the case that modern teaching methods have to involve high-tech devices. Technology should not be made a fetish or something that you can hide behind. Children still appreciate an interesting teacher and an engaging class even with no screens on and no LEDs blinking.