Anna, a fifth-grader at Emmorton Elementary School in Bel Air, starts each school day the same way. She designates whether she is a lunch-packer or lunch-buyer (she always packs), puts her backpack in her cubby, and removes her assigned laptop from its charger. Anna said she and her classmates use their laptops “like, all day.”
Anna takes her math tests, does morning drills, and fills out her weather log online as part of the blended learning experience many school systems are implementing across the country.
But are she and her classmates – and public school students all across Maryland – spending too much time staring at computer screens?
That’s a question the Maryland General Assembly is currently considering. House Bill 1110 would require the State Department of Education and the Maryland Department of Health to develop guidelines for the use of digital devices in public schools. The bipartisan legislation, sponsored by Del. Steven J. Arentz (R-Queen Anne’s) with 32 cosponsors, stems from growing concern over the negative effects of device overuse on children’s vision.
According to the University of Southern California Roski Eye Institute, “close work and use of mobile devices and screens on a daily basis, combined with a lack of outdoor activities and sunlight, may be the real culprit” behind the Multi-Ethnic Pediatric Eye Disease Study’s determination that cases of myopia – nearsightedness – has more than doubled in American children over the last 50 years.
A study published by the science journal PLOS One found children who spend seven or more hours a week on a computer or using a smart phone tripled their risk for myopia.
The blue light emitted by LED screens on computers have a particularly negative effect on children, whose eyes are not yet fully developed, said Cindy Eckard, a Queen Anne’s County parent and founder of the blog www.screensandkids.us. Eckard testified at a hearing on Arentz’s bill last week in the House Ways and Means Committee, and has been prodding lawmakers and the state Education Department to address the issue for the past few years.
Eckard referenced a study by the Complutense University of Madrid that found the main cause of damage comes from retinal cell death.
“People over the age of 20 have an amber coloration in our [eye] lenses. We essentially have built in sunglasses,” Eckard said. “Little kids and growing kids don’t. The blue light goes straight to the macula and kills retinal cells. They are not coming back.”
Leslie Weber, member of the PTA Council of Baltimore County, expressed the organization’s support for the bill, demanding Maryland students are guaranteed the same protections as adults by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has had screen-usage regulations in place for over a decade.
Baltimore County Public Schools’ integration of technology into its curriculum, formerly known as Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow, or STAT, will provide all students from grades 1-12 with laptops, according to Weber. The 113,000 students supplied with laptops are part of a “multi-year transformation of BCPS into a complete 21st century technology learning environment.”
“The PTA acknowledges digital devices can be a powerful learning tool…but devices have to be integrated into classroom learning thoughtfully and appropriately, especially for very young students,” Weber said.
Julie Sugar, co-founder of Advocates for Baltimore County Schools, stated her organization’s support for HB1110.
“Children as young as 5 are having their curriculum delivered to them on a laptop and are therefore spending a significant amount of time every day on a digital device,” she said.
The bill would require the state to develop these guidelines with 14 specified stakeholders, including both medical and education professionals, on or before June 1, 2019. Each county board of education would have the option to adopt these guidelines in their classrooms or provide an explanation to the State Department of Education as to why they have decided against the regulations.
The American Association of Pediatrics supports the measure, said Pamela M. Kasemeyer, a lobbyist for the organization. She said that on a county-by-county basis, school systems would have difficulty forming their own regulations individually.
“This way, we have a uniform framework,” Kasemeyer said. “There would be some consistency across jurisdictions, should they choose to adopt” the regulations.