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Online Homework Conflicts with Parental Limits on Kids’ Screen Time

By Cait Etherington
January 09, 2019
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Homework has long been a controversial topic among U.S. parents (to begin, see Time Magazine‘s 1999 article, “The Homework Ate My Family”). But increasingly the homework controversy isn’t just about how much schools should or should not be assigned. Increasingly, parents are also raising concerns about online homework.

If you have children of school age, you’re likely aware of the challenges associated with managing their screen time. You probably also know how difficult it can be balancing homework requirements with screen time limits. The situation is so widespread, some parents are even beginning to wonder if educators share their concerns about child and teen screen addiction at all.

One Family’s Dilemma

John and Megan live in New York City and have two children enrolled in the city’s public school system. Kyle is 12 and attends a middle school in Manhattan. Hannah is 16 and attends Bronx Science, one of the city’s top-ranked high schools. While Megan and John have long sought to limit their children’s screen time, they have all but given up.

“Five years ago, we had a rule with Hannah–no screens until your homework is complete,” explains John, “But by seventh grade, this was impossible. Half her teachers, even in middle school, wanted her to complete an assignment online, or they were doing the flipped classroom thing, and she had to spend 45 minutes watching math videos every night, or she just had to log on to Jupiter or another online platform to find out what the assigned homework was. We couldn’t say, ‘no phone, no computer access’. It was either limit screen time and jeopardize her studies, or cave in.”

Megan notes that since their daughter was in middle school five years ago, the situation has grown even worse. “Now Kyle is in seventh grade, and he sometimes needs to do something online for every class each night,” she says. “It might be a video or group project on Google Docs or an online educational game. What are we suppose to say? Don’t do your homework? But I don’t think teachers are really thinking through the consequences.”

If John and Megan are frustrated and feel like they don’t have any choice but to give in to their local schools’ online homework demands, they aren’t alone. Despite a growing number of studies linking excessive child and teen screen time to lower levels of academic achievement and higher levels of anxiety and depression, helping your children limit their screen time is often impossible due to educators’ growing reliance on online learning.

Most U.S. Teachers Require Students to Complete Online Homework

As reported in an October 2018 article in The Atlantic, most schoolwork now requires the use of a computer and an internet connection. In fact, one federal study found that 70% of American teachers assign homework that needs to be completed online, and at the high school level, the number of teachers assigning online homework is much higher (90%). In most cases, online homework assignments aren’t an occasional request but a daily occurrence.

The online homework phenomenon is also not a new trend. In 2015, the National Center for Educational Statistics reported that 88% of 8th-graders and 83% of 4th-graders used a computer at home, and 80% of 8th-graders reported using a computer to complete schoolwork. 

Even Teens Admit They May Be Spending Too Much Time Online

While teachers continue to assign homework that requires kids of all ages, and especially teens, to be online, many teens worry they may already be spending too much time online.

A 2018 study by the Pew Research Center found that roughly half of 13 to 17 year olds surveyed worried that they spend too much time online, specifically on their phones. In fact, over half of the adolescents surveyed (52%) were worried enough to have already attempted to cut back the time they spend on their phones.

What the Pew study doesn’t mention is that online homework may be partially to blame for the amount of time teens spend on their phones. Mobile phones are necessary to access many social media apps, including Snapchat, but many teens, especially those without access to their own computer, also rely on their phones to access online learning apps. As a result, teens often use the same device to socialize and complete their homework, making it difficult to establish firm boundaries. But this raises another question: What are the consequences of constantly toggling back and forth between multiple social and educational apps?

Mixed Reactions to Multitasking in a Multi-Screen World

Most current research on multitasking, and specifically media multitasking, suggests that if there are any benefits, the benefits are lost when the multitasking surpasses a reasonable threshold.

In one 2012 study, Rachel F. Adlera and Raquel Benbunan-Fich from the City University of New York recruited 205 subjects (90 female and 115 male) and assigned each subject a condition: 102 subjects solved a series of tasks sequentially in a “Non-Multitasking (NMT) condition” while 103 subjects were allowed to switch tasks at will in a “Discretionary Multitasking (DMT) condition.”  The researchers discovered, “Performance increases at lower levels of multitasking when increased arousal from shifting goals is beneficial to keep the users alert and engaged with their tasks. However, performance decreases after a certain point when constant goal displacement has a negative effect on performance.”

A 2016 survey of recent studies on media multitasking carried out by Se-Hoon Jeong and Yoori Hwang reached a similar conclusion. Based on a review of 49 studies on media multitasking, they concluded, “multitasking had negative effects on cognitive outcomes but had positive effects on attitudinal outcomes.” In other words, while multitasking may motivate a learner, it ultimately also distracts learners and serves as an obstacle to reaching peak performance.

A 2018 study based on a decade of research carried out by Stanford University professor Anthony Wagner reached an even less optimistic conclusion about the effects of media multitasking. As Wagner recently told the Stanford News:

“The heavy media multitaskers are significantly underperforming on tasks of working memory and sustained attention. The other half are null results; there’s no significant difference. It strikes me as pretty clear that there is a negative relationship between media multitasking and memory performance – that high media multitasking is associated with poor performance on cognitive memory tasks. There’s not a single published paper that shows a significant positive relationship between working memory capacity and multitasking.”

What Parents Can Do to Intervene

While many parents feel that their hands are tied and they have no choice but to continue letting their children and teens spend hours online every day, a few potential interventions remain viable.

  • Fight technology with technology: For years, parents have been relying on programs such as Net Nanny to limit the types of websites their children can visit. New devices–for example, Circle Media–are now also becoming popular with some parents. Circle enables parents to easily manage any internet-connected device in their home and even to lockdown certain devices.
  • Put pressure on your child’s teachers or schools to scale back online homework assignments: While one might not be able to take on this fight alone, with the support of other parents, it may be possible to persuade a teacher or school to at least limit how much online homework they assign each night.
  • Help your kids break bad online habits: As online homework increasingly becomes an unavoidable part of family life, parents are also advised to help their children understand the consequences of media multitasking.

While the above interventions may help, to effectively manage kids’ screen time at home, teachers and schools, which are now part of the problem, will need to become part of the solution.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash.