Guidelines needed for screen safety at school

Parents have been urged to limit screen time at home, now it's time to address the same dangers at school.

The National Educational Technology Plan, released just weeks ago by the U.S. Department of Education, encourages more computer use in the classroom. However, it makes no mention of any health risks to students, even though the U.S. Surgeon General's Office has safety guidelines that limit screen time, as does the American Academy of Pediatrics. The state's lengthy guiding documents, such as the Maryland Educational Technology Plan, also promote additional computer use at school while failing to mention any health risks to students. Since the health warnings are ignored by the educational leadership at the national level, it's not surprising that state and local leaders also fail to protect students.

Perform an online search for the phrase "Computer Vision Syndrome" or "digital eye strain" and you will learn how well documented the dangers of screens are: nearsightedness, blurry vision, dry eyes, headaches and neck and shoulder pain. And the way children use screens makes them particularly vulnerable to complications: They stare at them for long periods without taking significant breaks; computer work stations often don't fit them well; and they don't complain about blurry vision because they don't realize it's a problem that will just get worse.

If your child is having trouble sleeping, school assignments that require computer use in the evening could be the cause. Blue light emissions reduce melatonin, which is needed for sleep. Additional issues arise when a child isn't rested, including behavioral problems, irritability and the inability to concentrate. A child glued to a computer also isn't exercising, which contributes to childhood obesity, another major concern of the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children's eyes may also absorb more blue light than adults from digital device screens, according to a recent study, putting them at greater risk for premature retinal damage risk.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has had guidelines for using computer monitors safely at work since at least 1997. Office workers are informed of the risks to their health, given safety precautions for all manner of ergonomics and lighting, along with recommended screen time limits. They are provided a grievance process should they be compelled to use a computer monitor in an unsafe manner. Students and their parents? No warning, no safety guidelines, no screen limits, no grievance process to enable parents to protect their children. No policy at all. Why aren't students afforded the same protection as office workers?

Parents have been urged to limit screen time at home, now it's time to address the same dangers to our children's health at school. The Maryland legislature needs to limit these and additional health risks by directing the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to create enforceable, medically approved safety guidelines to protect our children, now that computers are required for their daily school work.

Doctors and environmental health experts are needed to set the guidelines because these are medical concerns that are unique to growing children. School administrators are not qualified to advise on health matters such as eye development and sleep disorders; they are not doctors. We need guidance from medical experts, an independent agency to monitor guideline implementation in the schools, and a grievance process for parents.

The clock is running out to get a bill filed and passed during this session of the legislature, but it's not over yet. There's still time for parents to demand safety protection guidelines from the state, crafted by medical professionals and implemented by schools. Computers in the classroom are here to stay, but our kids don't have to be damaged by them. We all need to contact our elected officials, including Gov. Larry Hogan, to get this fixed immediately. It's our job to make sure our children are kept safe and healthy at home — and at school.

Cindy Eckard is the mother of two children in Maryland public schools. Her email is screensandkids@gmail.com.

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