Sep 23, 2023

Kids are using A LOT of tech at school. Here’s what you need to know…

Kids are using A LOT of tech at school. Here’s what you need to know…

As we settle into school life, I know a lot of parents will be attending Back-to-School and Curriculum Nights in the coming weeks. This week, I want to talk about all that technology that our kids are using in schools, and give you some tips for how to approach this with your child’s teachers.

My daughter attends public school, and though her school has an Away-for-the-Day policy for student personal devices (yay), each student is provided with a district-issued laptop (not so yay). The district also has students sign “consent” forms when they first log in to their devices about “appropriate technology use” (because 12-year-olds understand what that means!?). Last week, she brought home her syllabus for her Language Arts class. It clearly states: “Misuse of district technology may result in students performing learning tasks on paper.” 

In other words, paper is now the punishment for misusing tech. How did we get here?!

Until recently, school used to be the one place where parents could send kids for the day and trust that they would be spending relatively little time on a screen or computer. 

When I first started this work in 2018, the struggles I heard about most often from parents were the “after-school hours” screentime fights. Kids would get home and ask for screens. It created a lot of family stress, and initially, my solutions for parents involved managing screentime at home.

Today, the landscape has transformed. Most American children now spend some part of their school day on a laptop or tablet (94% of public schools provide some form of personal computer for students). Even before COVID, schools were increasingly turning to EdTech tools to engage students in “21st century learning” and promote STEM programs. Teachers were asked to upload grades and assignments to learning management systems in the name of efficiency. Parents were given login information to keep tabs on progress (bypassing student initiative, in my experience). EdTech companies seized on a growing and lucrative market and turned anything they could into a technology-based curriculum, book, assignment, or game. 

EdTech as a term is broad and refers to any new technology implemented in a classroom. Here are a few examples of what “EdTech” can look like:

  • in-class laptops or tablets

  • smartboards and projection screens

  • online learning tools (math games, Google Classroom, etc.)

  • online learning management systems (like Schoology, Seesaw, Canvas, etc.)

  • health and wellness evaluations done via school-issued computers or platforms

  • college readiness assessments 

  • and much more…

Look how happy my child was during remote learning. (photo caption)

Shockingly, American classrooms now average 150 different EdTech platforms per school as Internet Safety Labs found in their groundbreaking report last year. This is for approved platforms-- ones that have been vetted by a district. This does not include any additional apps, tools, games, or websites that teachers may ask students to use. Internet Safety Labs also found that most apps used by K-12 students are unsafe for children. (It really is worth reading the entire report.

While there are a few pretty incredible ways technology can positively impact education, for the most part, it’s not all good. And in some ways, it’s really bad. The use of EdTech in schools comes with a host of challenges: 

  • For many schools, the technology isn’t optional, it’s required. This puts the burden on parents to “opt out” and often that means putting their child in a situation that is different from the rest of the class (which isn’t necessarily bad, but contributes to a reverse form of FOMO!).

  • When kids come home from school, the battle is no longer about limiting screentime for entertainment. Lines are blurred when kids say, “I need to go on the computer to do my homework!” 

  • Once online, it’s very, very difficult for a child not to be distracted by all the other temptations that exist on the computer. No adult should expect a child to be able to stay focused for long. As my colleagues Matt Miles and Joe Clement say, “Asking kids not to get distracted on a school computer is like holding an AA meeting in a bar.”

  • And of course, 96% of EdTech companies collect information about children and sell that data to AdTech companies, lining the pockets of EdTech, which is a $340 billion industry. This monetizing of children’s data without consent turns our kids’ education into someone else’s profits and starts them on the conveyor belt of putting profits over people before they’re even legal adults. It’s the same reason why selling Coke and Taco Bell inside a school cafeteria is wrong. It’s just that with digital tech, we can’t see it’s happening or how pernicious it is.

A parent recently told me that her kindergartener has been given an iPad for learning and that the teachers have Instagram accounts where they post about their classrooms. Another parent said that her son isn’t allowed to have a water bottle in school because it’s “dangerous” but he has unlimited access to the internet on his school computer. Another mom said that she thought her child was doing math for homework on the school laptop, but discovered she was actually watching TikTok videos on YouTube. (Pro tip: YouTube is usually not blocked by schools because teachers use it). 

What a mess!

So what can parents do?

We have to remember that teachers are not the enemy here. Schools have been dealing with a lot these past few years. The very quick pivot to remote learning meant that schools signed a lot of EdTech contracts and spent a lot of money to get things going. But those contracts are multi-year and taxpayer-funded– and schools can’t just walk away (even if that’s what would be better for kids). So as you approach your child’s teacher or school, remember that this is messy, complicated, and nuanced.

That being said, here are a few tips to get you started. Think of “straight A’s”:

  1. ASK: Start with questions. Ask your child to show you what they’ve been asked to do online and ask other parents what they are hearing. Then go ask the teacher.

  2. ALLY: Remember, part of being tech-intentional is replacing judgment with curiosity. This is not a teacher’s fault nor decision, for the most part. Your teacher is your ally– you’re both on the same team! If you approach with judgment, you won’t get anywhere.

  3. ADVOCATE: When you ask about all kids, and not just your own, you’re more likely to see movement in the right direction. Teachers have so much on their plates– if you can phrase your request in language that “this would be good for all students in the class,” you may have more success.

But parents, take heed. This is an uphill battle and even opting out is not easy. An EdWeek article from 2019 (pre-COVID!), called “Schools Are Deploying Massive Digital Surveillance Systems. The Results Are Alarming” noted that while it may be possible to opt a child out of EdTech platforms, doing so “would make participating in educational life in schools exceedingly difficult.” In other words, families are asked to choose between their child's education or protecting their child’s privacy and data and refusing to participate in a business model that profits from it. 

This. Is. Not. Okay. 

We must demand better for our children– there are very real, very long-term harms that come with using so much technology in the classroom.

P.S. I have a gift for you– I’ve actually gone ahead and created a 3-page document with possible questions to ask your child’s school about EdTech. 

You can download that PDF here!


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Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™ are registered trademarks.

The Screentime Consultant Logo Footer image

Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™

are registered trademarks.

The Screentime Consultant Logo Footer image

Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™ are registered trademarks.