Central York parents concerned by technology overload

Jessica Schladebeck

The Central York School District has provided most of its students with electronic devices to help with learning — and now some parents say their children are suffering from technology overload.

Photo Illustration by John A. Pavoncello

Four parents approached the school board during its meeting on Monday with concerns about the over-use of technology in the district and prolonged screen-time in classrooms.

Central York has given a device — either an iPad, laptop or iPad mini — to every child in grades 4 through 12 with the hope of eventually distributing a device to all students, including those in kindergarten.

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” said Nikki Stine, who has three children in the district. "Kids are not hitting those developmental milestones or motor skills developed through play — this is a disservice we’re doing our children."

Jodi Grothe, who has three children in the district, was told by her eighth-grader that their class spends 90 percent of the school day on the iPad mini. She said she later confirmed this with the teacher.

"There is a whole world out there, and students are missing out to look at a screen," she said.

Health Concerns: Dr. Courtney Smyser, an optometrist with Weaver Eye Associates and the mother of two Central York students, emphasized the harmful effects that can be associated with an abundance of screen-time. She said she has heard complaints in her office as well as from her own children that seem to be rooted in the over-use of technology.

Some of those effects include neck and shoulder pain, headaches and eye irritation as well as eye strain, Smyser said, noting that strain is only exacerbated by the smaller screens of the iPad minis, which she said most students have.

Prolonged exposure to the blue light — which is emitted from devices like iPads and laptops — can cause serious retinal damage, she said, which can lead to macular degeneration, an eye disease which is the leading cause of vision loss.

"I'm not opposed to technology," Smyser emphasized, noting that as a doctor, she interacts with a variety of screens daily.

She didn't advocate for dismissing the digital devices completely, but rather that the district consider issuing non-glare devices with a larger screen as opposed to the iPad minis, which feature a screen size of about 8 inches by 5 inches.

Smyser also offered some guidelines for protecting a student's eyes by way of the 20/20/20 rule. According to this principle, device-users should give their eyes a break and look away from the screen every 20 minutes and look at something at least 20 feet away — or even close their eyes — for at least 20 seconds.

According to a study conducted through the U.S. National Library of Medicine, too much screen time can also make it difficult for children to fall asleep at night and raise the risk of anxiety, depression and attention problems. It has also been linked to childhood obesity.

Other concerns: All four mothers expressed concerns about the security level on the devices and the lack of privacy that affords their young students.

Grothe commended the district on their heightened security measures following the Sandy Hook Massacre, but reminded the board  that "intruders don't only use the front door."

Nearly any family member or friend could have access to a student's device, she said, using numbers to further explain. If there are roughly 300 students in each grade, 4 through 12, than nearly 3,000 families could potentially have access to her student's information through the district's network, Grothe said.

Stine said in addition to headaches, eye irritation and neck pain, her children also experience a certain level of anxiety— particularly when their Wi-Fi is out. Students without Wi-Fi access are unable to complete their assignments, she explained, and, according to her children, pen and paper is not an acceptable alternative.

Lisa Glezer, who has three children in the district, was concerned at the very quick rate the technology was being implemented.

"I guess at a certain point you start to feel like a guinea pig," she said, noting two of her children were among the first to receive the iPad minis.

Parents are also required to pay $30 per device for insurance, Glezer said.

"If I'm going to be investing in a device, I'd like for it to be at least one of my choosing," she said. "As a parent, I never asked for this."

District Response: The board's vice president, Gregory Lewis said he has heard similar complaints at least a dozen times since Christmas.

And board member Karl Peckmann said he felt he has been a voice of dissent for the district's technology overhaul. He said his son, an eighth-grader in the district, has expressed a dislike for learning on the iPad mini.

"I still don’t see what’s wrong with kids being instructed by their teachers while they're reading off a blackboard," he said. Peckmann added that perhaps digital devices should be limited to high school use, which caused several of those at the meeting to applaud.

Superintendent Michael Snell told the group of mothers the iPad minis were selected because of their price point — according to the Apple website, the iPad mini is $100 cheaper than the next size model and nearly $500 cheaper than the iPad Pro, which has the largest screen — but said it was definitely a change worth considering.

He went on to say technology has made its way into 30 percent of classrooms across the country, and that's not something that's likely to go away.

"I don't think the predominant method going forward is going to be a teacher in front of 30 kids in neat rows," he said. "That said, we are still working on finding that balance with technology. We do want to make sure there’s more voice and choice, and we are very willing to have an open conversation about this."

— Reach Jessica Schladebeck at jschladebeck@yorkdispatch.com.