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Today I reflect on Larry Cuban’s two-part musing [Part 1] [Part 2] on screen time. Being an older but progressive-minded gent, I expected Cuban to lean on reason instead of fear-by-numbers.

He started by pointing to published statistics that “screen time” had increased in children across age groups despite various agencies creating time-based rules for using technology (see list in Part 2). 

I was not surprised about the increase given how those rules tend to ignore quality of task in favour of quantity of time. They might also forget that both students and their working caregivers rely on those screens for study or work, and for entertainment or relaxation. 

Cuban ended Part 1 by citing examples of how parents felt like hypocrites for using the same technologies that they denied their kids. But their hearts were in the right place — they wanted their kids to spend quality time with their loved ones.

If only they also used their minds to critically examine their actions. The examples were  technologically deterministic, i.e., the use of mobile phones was responsible for low/no social interaction in person. 

And yet they claimed that other technologies like typewriters, phone books, or maps brought them together. They conveniently forgot that the context of a task (like family time) and the strategy for enabling that task (come learn what we used to do in the past) are just as important.

In Part 2 of his musings, Cuban started with lists from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. They were negative exposures and possible harmful results due to screen time. I agree with Cuban’s reaction:

Based on the studies I have seen, I cannot say with a high degree of certainty that such issues will arise because with so many family and individual variables, a causal link between watching screens and children developing social, psychological, and emotional problems is tough to pin down.

Cuban then shared those horrible screen limits based on age groups. They are pointless because the 60+ studies he mentioned in Part 1 already established that screen time increased among 89,000 kids worldwide.

What matters more is the difficult job of parenting, not blind rule following. What could parents do? They might “turn off all screens during family meals and outings” or “avoid using screens as pacifiers, babysitters, or to stop tantrums”.

Cuban then shifted his attention to parental influence on technology use in schools. He recommended that parents go beyond the superficial “why is the school adopting devices for all students?” question. Instead he posed questions of this own:

Is use of computers effective in increasing academic achievement? After the novelty effect of new tablets and laptops wear off, as it inevitably does, are devices used in daily lessons and in what ways? Can ever-rising expenditures for school technologies be re-directed to research-based options such as hiring trained and experienced teachers?

Cuban then concluded with a common refrain: The screen time in schools mirrors what is happening at work. The boundaries of what separates school/work and personal lives are eroding. 

I would add to that conclusion by pointing out that arbitrary screen time rules try to reduce a complex issue to simple numbers. This approach is ineffective. 

What remains relevant is informed parenting and progressive pedagogy. Both start with a humble skepticism of questioning articles that paint fear-by-numbers and make unwarranted claims. You might develop this attitude and ability by reading thoughtful pieces like Cuban’s, but you can only do so with a device with a screen.

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Earlier this week, I stayed back after a Zoom-based lesson so that my students — pre- and in-service teachers — could ask questions or discuss ideas. 

The Q&A session lasted almost as long as our synchronous meeting (1.5h). Near the end of that session, I floated one idea for redesigning the next run of lessons.

My current design divided each 3h class into two parts: A 1.5h asynchronous and scaffolded-independent learning session followed by a 1.5h synchronous meeting. I was toying with the idea of switching to a 1h asynchronous and 2h synchronous design. My rationale: To provide more synchronous time for peer teaching and discussion.

The learners who stayed behind surprised me. They said that they would not mind doing the asynchronous work and follow that up with a full 3h synchronous meeting. 

I was against going beyond the 3h-per-lesson design. Why?

The syllabus is a contract and each class is supposed to last 3h. I am not ignoring the fact that there is much preparation and follow-up for each class for both my learners and me. But if I take liberties to extend class time, be it asynchronous preparation, synchronous interaction, or both, where does it end?

Keeping to agreed upon class durations is a discipline. It might have developed in conventional teaching, but it should also extend online particularly for synchronous sessions.

Extending lesson times beyond what is agreed upon upsets the work-life balance for pre- and in-service teachers. It establishes a wrong habit and expectation, i.e., teachers should just put their heads down and bear with it. This is like how teachers already sacrifice weekends to grade work and plan lessons.

I am also a firm believer that work expands to fit the time given. Within reasonable conditions, I can facilitate the learning of, say, three key practices, within either 1h or 3h. If I can do this in 1h, why do it in 3h?

Finally, I wish to model better expectations and lesson designs. One expectation is that learners need to be more independent and not rely on spoon-feeding or face time. This is why I set tasks to be attempted asynchronously. These tasks are designed to help learners identify knowledge gaps so they can fill them in when we meet synchronously. They must learn to invest in more independent study while managing their time-on-task.

My overall lesson design is particularly relevant to adult learners. This is even more important if the learners are teachers because teachers tend to teach the way they are taught. If they are not exposed to alternative ways of teaching, they will rely on uncritical or outdated approaches. I need to model other viable, relevant, and effective strategies.

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Here we go again. A representative of local mass media has a piece on screen time.

CNA propagated without first critically analysing what screen time is or means. It merely transferred responsibility by mentioning a local authority. I had to search for it.

The YouTube page mentioned the Academy of Medicine but did not link to it. That site seemed to be built from a portal template and was hideously cluttered. Good luck finding anything not about COVID-19!

Unfortunately, I was right. Neither “screen time” or “activity guidelines” yielded any returns. The search just froze at “Loading…”.

Screenshot of AMS empty search result.

Of the three major news sources, only one provided a direct link to the article titled Singapore Integrated 24-Hour Activity Guidelines For Children and Adolescents.

Here is a video screenshot of one such guideline as reported by CNA.

Screenshot of CNA programme on recommended screen time.

Such “news” makes me want to scream. But I recap what I have reflected on previously.

  • Using the two-hour limit is equivalent to spoon feeding parents with the “how much” without considering “what form” and “why”. It promotes lazy thinking.
  • The quantity-based guideline hides the quality of the task. I argue that consuming one minute of a self harm video is worse than three straight hours of pursuing a new passion like learning a new language. The nature of the task should precede its duration.
  • The information to limit kids to two hours does not actually inform. It feeds already uninformed and irrational fears, e.g., bad for eyes, anti-social behaviour.

The two-hour guideline is the fifth of ten items in the AMS article:

Segment from

While the guideline has good reason to promote non-screen activities like outdoor exercise and getting enough sleep, it does not emphasise good screen use habits like looking up and away (example: the 20-20-20 rule, see item 3) and establishing family rules [1] [2] [3].

Simply implying that screen time is bad does not take into account modern life. We need screens to work, school, and socialise — the current pandemic has made that clear. Some even exercise indoors with screens, e.g., stationary bike with screens, pilates on YouTube.

I say we use reason and longitudinal data on “screen time” instead of feeding into fears. Furthermore, if we suspect that that kids are not exercising as much as we once were, we need to first ask why our past behaviours or a number is the standard. We should also question the logic of blaming screen-based devices for causing physical or social ills — what else could be causal or a contributor, and why?

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If we remain level-headed, we stay open to contrary findings that kids do know how to find a balance, socialise conventionally, seek exercise, and adapt to the circumstances they are dealt with [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9].

But do not take my word for it. Consider just a few of the references I numbered above, this Nature article, and a researcher’s tweet thread below.

The association we find between digital technology use and adolescent well-being is negative but small, explaining at most 0.4% of the variation in well-being. Taking the broader context of the data into account suggests that these effects are too small to warrant policy change.

Ah, screen time. Parents want to know how much time is too much, armchair experts offer numbers, and much of the mainstream media perpetuates ignorance around the issue [examples in this video segment].

When will the fear-mongering stop? If the constant refrain from the Pessimists Archive podcast is correct, the answer is that it will not. We take comfort in what is old and fear what is new.

But there are ways to break out of the fear and inertia. One way is to ask better questions.

The easy but wrong question to ask is: How much screen time should I limit my child/student to? There is no magic number because every person is different and a number (if it even exists) depends on the context. The context begs other queries, e.g., when/where to use, what is the screen use for, why it is used.

Consider scenario A. A person is watching a video on a mobile phone while waiting to cross the road and continues watching while crossing. If you stick to the how much screen time question, my answer is zero if you value that person’s life.

Now switch the context to scenario B. The same person watches the video while travelling to work on the train. I say watch as much as your ride, data plan, wallet, or sanity allows.

Let us consider social learning contexts next.

In scenario C, a group of students decides to meet at a neighbourhood McDonald’s to discuss a class project. They need their phones to fact check, but they get distracted with memes. How much screen time should they have? How is contextual use important?

In scenario D, the same group meets online to collaboratively build a world in Minecraft. This is part of their project on climate change. Again, how much screen time should they have? How is contextual use more important?

It can take hours to edit one YouTube video. You might be able to watch one hundred videos in the same time if you go down a YouTube rabbit hole. The quantity of time is the same, but the quality of the tasks are different.

If we learn to stop asking the how much question and focus on the how, what, where, or why questions, we learn to empathise with our children and students.

That is my rant. Now here is a real ranter’s rant.

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The first Friday of September is Teachers’ Day in Singapore.

Schools celebrated the day yesterday with half days and staff dinners. Today is a school holiday and an early start to a one-week break.

Teachers’ Day is great for businesses that take advantage of it. But quite a few teachers still return to school during the break to get work done.

Whether teachers get to enjoy a break or not, they might be thankful that they were not subject to the rules of the past.

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We do not need a time machine to travel back to the past in order to reflect on how much (or how little) has changed, and to appreciate what we have now.

We do not need to share exactly the same contexts (US or Singapore) to appreciate how difficult it is to teach or how much more difficult it is to educate.

This scattered reflection comes courtesy of binge listens to thought-provoking podcasts like Pessimists Archive and No Such Thing As A Fish.

I started think about how Internet access has changed over my adult life. Specifically, how service providers charged for this utility then and now. This led me to a critique of an overused word — disruption.

When I first started going online, I needed a dialup modem and a phone line. This meant that I had to pay for a phone line subscription every quarter, a monthly Internet subscription, and a per-minute use of the Internet. The first two were fixed costs; the last could balloon every month. I call this time-based Internet access.

Such access is not as common nowadays but it still exists. Consider how public libraries, airports, or coffee joints still limit Internet or wifi access by time.

When I moved on to DSL, I still had to pay for a phone line but I also had to think about how much I might consume every month and at what bandwidth. Exceed that volume and I had to pay extra. This was volume-based Internet access.

While this might seem like an archaic concept, it is still common in mobile phone data plans. You get an upper limit every month. Exceed that limit and pay a premium for every unit volume, especially if you are overseas.

When I moved to cable — first copper, then fibre optic — I did not have to worry about volume limits. I only had to decide what bandwidth or Internet speeds I desired. This speed-based Internet access was like paying a fixed sum for an all-you-can-eat buffet.

The speed and bandwidth-based Internet access model seems the most reasonable now given the state of current technologies, i.e., broadband fibre optic cable in just about every home here. According to government statistics for Jan 2019, there were:

  • 3800 residential DSL connections
  • 106,900 residential cable connections
  • 1,260,300 residential fibre optic connections

Changes in residential wired broadband subscriptions.

What is the point of all these numbers?

Some might say that fibre optic access has disrupted the Internet access game. They seem to have a point if you consider the dominance of the speed-based model over the time and volume models.

However, the facts are that the three systems co-exist and that one did not lead to the evolution of the other. A newer method did not replace an earlier one. Fibre optics has not yet disrupted DSL — it provides access to the same Internet differently.

What has been disrupted is consumer expectations. It is not reasonable to pay for time and volume for wired Internet when you realise you can do so by speed with an all-you-can-eat subscription.

Technology did not really disrupt Internet access. We have far too many models and needs for that to happen. But it has helped change expectations. We expect fast and cheap; we know that anything else is living in the past and getting cheated.

I suspect that there is a similar disruption in expectations for education (not schooling). Similar in pattern, but not exactly mirroring. After all, education is not a utility, is much more complicated, and takes longer to change.

Simplified, people pursue their educations full-time, part-time, on-the-job, or lifelong. The circumstances under which different people do this is varied. However, they are like to share similar expectations, e.g., no/low cost, timely, meaningful, driven by utility.

The expectations vary by time. A full-time student might forego low cost for a few years, but will likely expect not to pay for on-the-job education. The same student might not see the utility or timeliness of a course, but will expect professional development to be provided when needed and useful immediately.

Any entity that claims to have disrupted, say, the higher education market is making a questionable claim. It might provide cheaper, quicker, or even more timely information, but it has not displaced lecture halls, tutorial rooms, and study areas. At best that entity can try to meet the needs of students at that stage — how long (time), how much (volume), how fast (speed).

I time travelled again about two weeks ago. How so? I had to apply for GIRO payments for my electricity bill the good old fashioned way.

When I jumped on the switch-your-utility-provider bandwagon last June, the provider, Sunseap, did not offer automatic payment by credit card. All my other utility bills — water, gas, Internet, digital phone line, mobile phone accounts — are paid this way. As are other payments, e.g., installments. It is a fact of modern life.

I resorted to paying by mobile. This meant scanning a QR code in my monthly e-bill. Sounds current, does it not? No, not when I have to remind myself to do this every month. If I had to remind myself to pay every bill manually, I would need to invest unnecessary bandwidth on things so basic.

Yes, this is a first-world issue. But can you blame me for expecting better of a provider that claims to be the first to provide solar-generated electricity to commercial and mainstream consumers?

I had to travel back to the past of printing out a paper-based GIRO form, fish an envelope from a dusty box, and buy a stamp from a post office. I had to do these things regularly when I started working a little over 30 years ago. But it was not a nostalgic trip down memory lane because it was inconvenient and inefficient.

The future is already here. It's just not evenly distributed. --William Gibson

This experience was a reminder to me that the future is here, but not evenly distributed. It was also a reminder that one public facing group of an organisation can look progressive while other parts can be stuck rigidly in the past.

I have more time to reflect on this. It will take weeks for me to know if my GIRO form went through and the application got approved.

This op ed piece pushes the screen time debate to a better place than fear-mongering. It points a finger to the very people who fear out of ignorance.

The ignorance is not about the research on screen time or what growing up looks like now. It is about parental roles in oversharing, negatively modelling, and ignoring the collection and use of private data.

So instead of focusing on kids’ screen time, perhaps adults should screen their own habits and biases.

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People on the street were asked to tell the time with a clock. An actual clock with a face and arms, not a digital display.

The expected response might be: Oh, young people these days!

To those who judge, I ask if they can do what these “young people” can do or what their ancestors could do. I doubt many can organise a movement with social media or change a horseshoe.

Can you do it? Can you change with the times and not judge it?

Video source

This video is as much about misconceptions surrounding screen time as it is about:

  • Reading beyond headlines
  • Understanding how newspapers are not journals
  • Distinguishing engagement and accuracy; statistical significance and effect size; correlation and causation

It also illustrated how large sample sizes can make tiny effects statistically significant even though they have no practical significance.

For example, the video cited a study in Nature Human Behaviour that had a sample size of 355,358 adolescents. The video (also this article in Vox) highlighted how the study found that “wearing eyeglasses and eating potatoes also had significant yet small negative effects on teens’ wellbeing”. And yet we do not vilify either.

Add to that the fact that researchers have to decide where cut-offs are that distinguish statistically significant effects from non-significant ones (e.g., P value 0.01 vs 0.05). The same researchers or the agencies they work for might also make cut-offs like recommended screen times of no more than one hour before age five, even if the evidence does not support strict limits for any age groups.

TLDR? Newspapers oversimplify complex phenomena by providing easy answers. Real learning is not in taking these answers at face value. It happens when you explore nuance and depth instead.


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