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My husband and I have asked our 16 year old son to take a 20 minute walk each morning before his remote school day begins. He also takes a 20 minute walk by/before 5 p.m. That's the total physical activity he gets each day. Prior to the remote schooling world, we also had a rule of no screens before school. When he was much younger this was largely to keep him on track to get out of the door on time. However, we also received a message from the middle school principal requesting that students not get on screens before school because research showed it made them less receptive to learning at the start of the day. Now that he’s older, our son recently pushed back on this rule. What are your thoughts? Is there a good (research-based) reason to prohibit recreational screen use before school?

So Many Screens in MA

A photo of Whitney.

Whitney Henderson

Whitney Henderson is EdNavigator's Chief Program Officer. She brings more than a decade of experience as an award-winning teacher, school leader, and instructional expert.

Dear So Many Screens,

Yes, it seems like screens are “virtually” everywhere these days, and professional guidelines have become more and more flexible in order to satisfy the need for virtual learning, high demand for social time with families and friends, and so much more. But even with these shifts, of course there are some risks associated with extended screen time, and these risks depend on a few factors.

There is a ton of supporting research that shows how screentime before bed disrupts sleep patterns, mostly due to the blue light produced by electronic devices that signals the body to stay alert by reducing melatonin production. (Melatonin is the natural chemical that induces sleepiness and tells the body to wind down.) Because screen usage stimulates the brain when it should power down, it sends mixed signals to the body, making it more difficult to fall asleep. Children (and probably adults too!) who use screens before bed are more likely to develop insomnia, behavioral issues, moodiness, and more.

While the consensus is clear on screen time before bed, the research on the effects of early morning screentime is limited. Much of what we know seems to come from a small 2018 study out of France that looked at children between three and six years old and found that the risk of speech and learning difficulties was three times higher for children who were watching screens in the morning rather than engaging in conversations with their parents and/or siblings. Your son is much older, however, so language development is likely not affected by screen usage for him.

That said, the blue light signaling mentioned earlier has the same effect on the body no matter the time of day, so if he is excessively using screens before school, there certainly is a level of energy and effort being absorbed in order to engage that may be typically reserved for his schoolwork. It may not seem like effort to him, but this is why many students feel tired in many of their afternoon classes after a morning of watching YouTube videos or social media browsing. They typically run out of the stamina necessary to pay attention and focus because of the earlier excitement that was attributed to screen usage. So in short, if you want your son to be most alert and energized for a full day of rigorous learning, it may be best to avoid screens before learning—meaning you all were absolutely right in your thinking!

“It may not seem like effort to him, but this is why many students feel tired in many of their afternoon classes after a morning of watching YouTube videos or social media browsing.”