Some Technology Leaders Worry about Children and Digital Devices: They Should

We don’t have cellphones at the table when we are having a meal, we didn’t give our kids cellphones until they were 14 and they complained other kids got them earlier.

Bill Gates interview, 2017

I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information — and especially of stressful information — is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we’re losing that.

Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, Interview with Charlie Rose, 2009*


They haven’t used [the iPad]. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.

Steve Jobs, Apple, 2010 in reply to reporter about  his children using newly-released iPads


I do not know whether these high-tech leaders feel that way today (Jobs died in 2011) but there are other Silicon Valley dads and moms who work for Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and start-ups who wrestle with dilemma of valuing highly technology access and use but see the negatives of overuse of devices by their children. Listen to a manager for a Silicon Valley firm who limits his 12- and 10-year old daughters’ device time to 30 minutes a day yet he uses devices for hours:

“I’d give myself a B-minus or C-plus — and that’s up from a solid F at one point….The kids have called me out on it, for which I was grateful.”

The sting of parents considering themselves hypocritical in setting limits for their sons and daughters in using tablets, cell phones, and laptops at home while they are on the devices for long stretches of day and night-time (average daily use of mobile devices for adults was five hours while awake) is an ever-present issue in Silicon Valley and across the country. It pinches San Francisco Bay area parents  with devices even more so.

Sharael Kolberg says she was one of those parents. A Silicon Valley writer (her husband worked in marketing) describes an experiment they did with their daughter in A Year Unplugged: A Family’s Life Without Technology. She recalls: “We went back to the ‘80s, basically. I got out my record player and typewriter, we used the phone book and paper maps. It enhanced our relationships with our friends and family. Technology takes that away from us.”

Few parents and their children are going to go cold-turkey for a year regardless of what Kolberg writes and medical associations recommend. But many parents will try to reduce use of their devices and the ones they buy for their children because it cuts down on family face-to-face communication particularly when both (or single) parents use devices daily (and nightly) for their work (see here).

And other parents will avoid conflicts with their kids in trying to limit use.

But conflict is inevitable since the spread of devices has also swallowed schools. Although largely poor and minority schools have fewer devices than their suburban cousins, overall, nearly half of public schools now distribute one-to-one devices to students beginning in primary grades through high school. Screen time for children and youth has leaped ahead dramatically (see here and here).

Can parents do anything about schools doubling the screen time for their sons and daughters?

Schools can restrict use. There are a few schools that see the overall picture of home and classroom screen use and restrict use of devices. Google executive Alan Eagle whose children attend a Waldorf school spoke to a reporter:

[H]e says his daughter, a fifth grader, “doesn’t know how to use Google,” and his son is just learning. (Starting in eighth grade, the school endorses the limited use of gadgets.)

High tuition private schools with a clear ideology about teaching and learning and the place high-tech devices should and should not play in both have that latitude to reduce use of computers in elementary and middle school grades. That Waldorf school caters to affluent offspring of Silicon Valley parents, many of whom work at nearby companies.

Except for school policies banning cell phone use in classrooms–a policy that administrators and teachers are often ambivalent about and enforce erratically–few public schools have the luxury of restricting use of digital devices in lessons. In a society that loves technology and sees it as the solution to problems both private and public, school officials who raise questions risk strong backlash from parents, vendors, and students. Unless, of course, they are pressured by parents concerned about use of public funds for technology and increased screen time for children and youth.

Parents can raise questions with district and school administrators about use of digital tools for classroom lessons. There are straightforward questions such as why is the school adopting devices for all students (see here)? Then there are the questions that often don’t get asked: 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?

Such parent/school cooperation around screen time is rare although a few parents and school officials do raise such questions (see here, here, and here).

Those top leaders who founded and run high-tech organizations talk about how they reduced use of technology for their own children have yet to make the connection of total screen time now that schools have thoroughly embraced digital devices as must-have tools for daily lessons. Combined time watching screens at school and home for the young mirrors the work world where employees are always on call and boundaries between private and work lives are disappearing.








*Interview with Charlie Rose, March 6, 2009–quote begins at 42.00



Filed under raising children, technology use

35 responses to “Some Technology Leaders Worry about Children and Digital Devices: They Should

  1. Hello Larry,

    Thank you for the post as I was just discussing this concept again yesterday with a colleague. However, I do wonder if we need to keep the conversation more nuanced. For example, Lisa Guernsey writes in her book – Balancing Screentime – that we need to consider the context, the content, and the child. As another example, in their book The Triple Focus, Goleman and Senge describe the need to develop inner, outer, and other focus when helping students to learn the self-regulation, empathy, and awareness of how technology impacts their lives.

    Finally, and I think that you illustrate this with your comments from Sharael Kolberg, there is a need for adults to model behaviors and interactions for their children and students. In this report (, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center discusses the need for co-viewing and instructional mediation as means to help students understand how to control their technology vs the other way around.

    So, coming back to my original point, how might we all help introduce a more nuanced conversation about screentime with parents and educators?

    Take care,

    • larrycuban

      Whatever is done between school and parents in a “nuanced” conversation will, I believe,vary from place to place insofar as who initiates the back-and-forth. But surely both have to be involved when it comes to combined screen time that children and youth are now accumulating. Thanks for comment, Beth.

      • Hi Larry,

        If you don’t mind, one more question: when a conversation requires nuance, and yet also seems to be charged with emotion, where does the conversation begin between schools and parents? I am currently taking a course in Power, Policy, and Politics. According to Crozier and Friedberg (1980), power is a function of a “zone of uncertainty” (p. 34). Since technology creates uncertainty, which can increase emotional responses, does perceived power impact the ability to have this nuanced conversation between these two groups?

        Thank you,

  2. Several years ago, there was a push to allow high school students to have their cellphones on their desks as they worked. Some teachers embraced working with the youth cultural context of having smartphones out all the time. Now we are seeing a slight reversing in this trend. More teachers are going back to cellphones in the backpack, no distractions, no within sight of oneself or others. We are finally realizing that we are witnessing an addiction, not a blossoming of a healthy innovative use of resources. We are staring to figure out how to walk it back, our own addictions to the devices, as well of those of our kids. I love the idea of parent teacher collaboration and discussion of how to treat our collective use and misuse of social media, twitchy fingers straining for the toy, googling information, fake news sources, and all the rest. Thank you for this article and all the links.

  3. I ask my students to follow the rules we use at faculty meetings. I see teachers texting all the time during meetings. I ask my students to use common sense. ‘Distraction’ is a part of learning. (not sure you can read this NYTimes article without a subscription).

    • larrycuban

      Jerry, thanks for pointing out what teachers do during faculty meetings and what students can do with their cells. Distraction is surely a part of learning but most teachers I know want to reduce (can never eliminate) distractions over which they have influence. Thanks also for NYT piece. I cited it in the post.

  4. Hi Larry, follow your blog regularly. There’s also the element of how much tech integration is costing school districts, and who is benefitting. In our public schools in Baltimore County, there is a laptop-per-student program hitting more than $300 million and counting. And the money is coming from “all areas of operation,” according to BCPS officials, so that means tens of millions of dollars are pulled away from teaching positions (shifts to tech mentors) and teaching resources (parents see class sizes grow to more than 30), as well as an ongoing lack of social workers and basic needed infrastructure, like air conditioning–among other needs and services. There are also ethical concerns about staffers or leaders promoting or providing “testimonials” for the education technology products of school vendors, like Hewlett-Packard. Diana Ravitch just picked up and reposted a piece, with a wider note about what to watch for around the country, especially now that concerns over large contracts and local superintendent-company relationships are coming further to light. Schools do need some tech options, but there also needs to be balance, as you note. Here is Diane’s post, and a link to the original for further discussion. Thanks for your thoughtful post!

    original post:

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment. The questions that your coalition ask of school officials about funding new devices is right on the money. I will read the post you sent.

      • Hi, absolutely. You raise important points. Here is a more direct link to the post itself (below), though the previous comment links to the blog, which has been following and inquiring about the digital initiative here for a couple years. There’s a good bit of background, as well as discussion on tech offerings and outcomes.

  5. Kathleen Hayes

    Do you know of recent studies that explore the question “does technology increase academic achievement?”?

    • larrycuban

      Try these: EDUCATION TECHNOLOGY:AN EVIDENCE-BASED REVIEW Maya Escueta, Vincent Quan, Andre Joshua Nickow, Philip Oreopoulos
      NBER Working Paper 23744

      Click to access 20074005.pdf

      Bebell, D. & O’Dwyer, L.M. (2010). Educational Outcomes and Research from 1:1 Computing Settings. Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment, 9(1).
      Retrieved [date] from

    • Another quick note on resources: The University of Colorado-based National Education Policy Center (NEPC) 2017 report on Blended and Virtual Schools:

      And a 2015 65-country Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study, which indicated that reading abilities go down the more tech is used in schools.The authors wrote: “And perhaps the most disappointing finding of the report is that technology is of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Put simply, ensuring that every child attains a baseline level of proficiency in reading and mathematics seems to do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world than can be achieved by expanding or subsidising access to high‑tech devices and services.”

      The report, see Executive Summary

      And a Washington Post story regarding:

      Oh, and the first comment should say Diane Ravitch, not Diana. Darn that autocorrect technology.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the additional sources.

      • From a purely academic perspective, I am wondering about whether or not reports such as OEDC can be used to validate the effectiveness of technology for improving student learning. I wrote a bit about that here –

      • larrycuban

        The point you make in your Ed Week piece, Beth, is that most studies about digital tools and academic achievement are, indeed, correlational and do not show how access or use of technology “causes” student learning however measured. Correlational studies may be credible, reliable, and valid but validity doesn’t always mean that it is a causal study.Random clinical trials try to get at causation but with computers and achievement, the questions and theory are very complex and RCTs are nearly out of the question. As long as correlational studies are clearly distinguished from causal ones, than the PISA study and similar ones, well done and meeting the criteria you listed, are clues to the linkage but only clues.

      • Hello Larry,

        Thank you for the reply. I think that your point is my concern. These studies offer clues and suggestions but cannot be taken as causation. Too often, they are used to verify assumptions but may not have been designed as such.

        I think that this comes back to a broader question of what do we want learning to look like and how might digital technologies support that learning process?

        Thank you for a great conversation,

  6. Thanks Larry. I have an 11yr old daughter at Steiner (similar to Waldorf) and a 14 yr old daughter who attends a government secondary school. The difference with regards to their ‘connection’ to tech is astounding. Our Steiner daughter is comfortable without tech and finds other things to do such as reading, drawing, making, playing outside. We do allow her half hour of tech time per day on weekends and also short bursts of additional time to research something of interest which we may not have a ‘real’ book to reference. She does not have a device of any sort. My older daughter on the other hand has device addiction issues, distraction from school work issues and would be happiest closed up in a dark room, curtains drawn, staring, swiping and who knows what else on her device. There are tantrums when we ask her to stop. Nightmare! We enforce limits these days and make sure we have time doing or talking with the kids, or encourage and line up other healthier activites or sit with our eldest when she does her homework, doing our own work on tech. We also limit tech time until they are in bed. Role modelling self management with tech is the hardest part! 🙂

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for taking the time to comment and describe what you do vis-a-vis devices with your two daughters going to different schools.

  7. Two years ago I experimented with my Alg II (sophomore) class. Phones were allowed for use as calculators and math help. Overall not a good result. The temptation to do something other than math was too great. It was a constant struggle to keep a high percentage of the students on task. I do not like teaching with an iron fist. This year (no Alg II for me last year) no phones. Keeping sophomores focused on anything is a struggle. Throw in a major distractor like the internet in hand and it is impossible.

  8. Kate

    I am a parent and former school committee member of a high-achieving suburban school district in MA, where a 1-1 program was adopted 3 years ago, and where exposure to screens begins in pre-k. In our district, anxiety rates (and concurrent IEPs and 504 plans) are escalating (over 30% of our 7th graders began the year on some kind of plan) and I am extremely concerned about the health impact of screen use. I have seen research that links melatonin production to screen use (blue light,) but have not seen longitudinal studies investigating the impact of screens on sleep habits and consequence on health. Instead, much of the hype focuses on homework (too much!) or early start times (way too early!) or activities (too many, too structured!) Knowing that screen use will impact levels of melatonin (delaying sleep for up to 90-120 minutes after use) makes me wonder if the elephant in the room isn’t homework that necessitates the use of a screen (google docs collaboration, videos/flipped classroom, etc.) In the not so distant past, it was possible for a student to start daily homework after dinner, finish it, and fall asleep at a reasonable hour (ie right away.) Today, if homework begins at 7 (not uncommon if a student has a job, plays a sport, or even just hangs out with friends,) and finishes at 930 or so, then sleepiness will probably not occur until 11 or later. Then throw in all the problems with social media, and etc… And the killer, alas, is that the use of screens does not necessarily lead to better outcomes. (For further discussion, the NBER paper you referenced is written about here, with free access to their study in the links: ) My final thought is that adults often have the power to choose when to turn the screen off – a student does not necessarily have that liberty.

  9. In my personal opinion a school needs to be both a cold spot and a hot spot and it’s key for teachers and school leaders to show when to use technology and when it is better not to.
    Abolishing technology in school can be a bad idea (cfr e.g. the EU Kids research), making the kids more vulnerable in a digital society, as bad as thinking that everything should be digital (e.g. a lot of studies, this being one of the most recent:

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, Pedro.

    • Some well-made points here about the nature of various studies. Unfortunately, expansive screen-time digital initiatives like the STAT program in Baltimore County Public Schools are often testing start-up company software (some with ‘dopamine-surge’ gaming formats) and ergonomically questionable tablet usage among children, despite a lack of well-conducted independent research to support various methods used. In effect, this can end up becoming a “natural experiment” involving children as young as six, and that creates ethical concerns. This ACLU article below points to several issues to consider in Detroit, including investment interests that can rush program implementation in actual school settings. This is not an issue of zero tech in schools, but how such options are used, especially in terms of developmental appropriateness, as well as financial efficacy and impact on class sizes, school-wide resources, GT options, and related.

  10. Pingback: Proposed county schools’ laptop contract pricing more than double recommended one-to-one cost, report shows. | STAT-us BCPS

  11. Pingback: Occupational Therapists Speak Out | STAT-us BCPS

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