Green vs. Screen


Alford discusses developing technology boundaries

There’s no question technology enhances our lives, and learning environments are no exception. Today’s students can connect with peers from around the globe, can access information on nearly any subject in a split second, and can collaborate and study in ways that previous generations never could have imagined.

With the myriad positives that technology offers, however, there is an increasing awareness of its more negative downsides. St. Andrew’s Episcopal School’s Head of Middle School Tim Alford recently held a discussion with parents to consider how technology use – especially smartphones – is affecting students’ development, not only academically but also socially and emotionally.

Alford, alongside St. Andrew’s Head of Lower School, Dawn Wilson, presented research on the benefits of kids spending more time outside, “green time,” as well as the downside of “screen time,” or ways to use screens in a more selective, age-appropriate, and limited manner.

“The research on the harm of using too much technology and the impact it has on child development is clear,” Alford said. “A recent article in The Atlantic (Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?, 2017) summarized a lot of research about a direct correlation between increased use of screen time and issues of mental health, depression, and anxiety in adolescence.”

Jean M. Twenge, writer of Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation, reviewed results of The Monitoring the Future survey, which has continuously asked high school and middle school students a series of questions regarding happiness and participation in various activities. Since the arrival of the smartphone, Twenge writes, “The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy.”


The research, however, goes beyond adolescents’ happiness, including areas such as executive functioning in students. According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, “Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.”

Alford elaborated on this idea, explaining, “Good students are students who generally have good executive functioning skills. There is research now that suggests more time outside – and more time being bored outside – leads to improved executive functioning skills.” Boredom allows for the development of imagination, creativity, and problem-solving abilities.

Spending time outdoors is a freedom that many of today’s parents were afforded as children. Today, however, kids spend far more time indoors and instead, Twenge writes, “they are on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.” 

While students in Gen X were more likely to hold jobs outside of school, today’s students tend to be overscheduled with extracurricular activities that prevent them from enjoying the freedoms that come with childhood.

“Families don’t build in time for outdoor time,” Alford said. “They don’t build in time for kids to be kids. I think families need to be a little more aggressive about saying, ‘this is going to be a time that’s off limits from technology,’ or, ‘we’re going to spend time together,’ that kind of thing. That’s probably more important – and feasible – as the kids are younger and more difficult to manage as obligations, sports teams, and artistic performances get more serious.”


In addition to designated time outside and away from technology, Alford emphasized the importance of parents modeling appropriate technology use for their children.

“I think that what we, as adults, need to wrestle with is that technology is a beast to which we are beholden, as well,” he said. “We are now getting used to information coming at us in quick bursts and more digestible snippets, and that is ruining our ability to pay attention and focus and think deeply about something. As families, we need to learn how to navigate conflicts in person. We need to learn how to manage affection in person and how to have real relationships that are not mediated through a screen. That only happens with a ton of practice – and the best place to practice those conversations is the family dinner table. When everybody’s plugged into their screens rather than digging into the meaty substance of what it means to be a person in today’s world conversationally, students are not going to be as well prepared for those issues when they get to school.”

Despite the downside to excessive technology use, once students enter the classroom, they can learn and create in ways not previously available. St. Andrew’s sixth-graders, for instance, are coding musical productions to share with their peers. Additionally, the use of Google Classroom and Google Docs offers opportunities for collaboration, such as editing each other’s papers and working on group projects remotely.

The challenge, then, is striking the delicate balance between green time and screen time, taking advantage of technological opportunities while focusing on child development in the real world.

“There are plenty of positives with technology,” Alford said. “The reality is, it’s not going anywhere.”


A role parents can take is to establish technology boundaries with their children and decide what is best for their families, a challenge that may be easier said than done.

“I think parents misjudge the magnitude of that challenge,” Alford explained. “I also think parents – and I say this as a parent myself – can get peer pressured by their kids with ‘everybody else is doing this’ or ‘you’re ruining my life, I can’t fit in.’ Parents, I think, underestimate the extent to which other families are feeling the same way that they are. Families need to be much more courageous about establishing their own boundaries and determining what is the right course for their kids.”

Alford is a strong proponent of the movement “Wait Until 8th”, a campaign where parents wait until their kids are in the 8th grade before introducing phones. Deciding when to give students phones, however, is not limited to the household.

“I think schools are wrestling with that same question of what and when, and that’s an ongoing question here at St. Andrew’s,” Alford said. “We don’t have the power to shape national trends; I think we just have to figure out how we’re going to respond to them.”


For parents who seek additional resources on this topic, Alford recommended Common Sense Media, which offers vast information on appropriate content for children and how to navigate conversations among family members about safe technology use.

“The most important thing for families to do is to talk about their own value system and how technology fits within it,” he said. “How are you going to use this tool, what are the limits going to be, what are the tradeoffs going to be, and how are you going to make space for green time and the other areas that you value?”

Here are Alford’s quick tips to start practicing technology boundaries with your family today:

1. What freedoms did you have as a child? Did your parents send you outside to ride your bike in the neighborhood? Think about ways you could replicate that experience for your own children. There is so much value in giving children that kind of freedom and autonomy;

2. Be intentional about your family’s technology use. What’s your system going to be? Put a few rules and regulations in place to manage screen time; and

3. Understand your importance as a model for child behavior and demonstrate for your children what you want to see, especially when it comes to engaging in technology versus connecting with the people and the world around you.


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