Thursday, November 18, 2021

Will $billions of federal funds for Ed Tech bypass consumer protections?

As the impacts of remote learning during the pandemic lockdown are coming to light, two critical issues have emerged: (1) the disparities of internet access among many students, and (2) the serious, sometimes, irreversible, health impacts that children across the country are experiencing as a result of relentless digital device use, demanded by their schools.

While Senators Chris Van Hollen and Ed Markey have led the funding to address the disparate access to digital technology, they have ignored the health risks introduced by the very devices they are so eager to provide.

A simple amendment to several of the bills they have sponsored or promoted could correct this: any device or connection funded by their legislation must be provided with the health and safety warnings published by the device makers themselves. That little pamphlet that provides fundamental consumer protection information must be distributed to the students and families who have been issued a device by any school system using federal funds.

My letter to Senator Chris Van Hollen:

Below please find my concerns regarding the SUCCESS Act and Emergency Connectivity Fund that the senator is co-sponsoring with Senator Ed Markey and others.

While very well-intentioned, this effort currently ignores decades-long medical evidence that the daily use of digital devices poses myriad health risks with even worse outcomes for vulnerable, growing children. OSHA regulated computer use for adults in 1997. The CAMRA Act was originally introduced in 2007 - 14 years ago - by Joe Lieberman. The health impacts from daily tech use have been a concern for decades.

But today, children are suffering from known hazards, without a single protection from a federal government that consistently funds ever more technology in schools. Although social media and recreational use of screens are cautioned against, somehow the schools' demand for digital device use keeps getting a pass. That's like saying seat belts are required - unless you're driving to school.

I am writing to ask that Senator Van Hollen introduce an amendment to both the SUCCESS Act and the ECF requiring that federal funding for educational technology comes with mandated student health and safety warnings as part of the package. Any school district or state educational entity using these funds should be required to provide to students and their families - at minimum - the health and safety warnings published by the device makers themselves.

If Senator Van Hollen buys a laptop, explicit health and safety warnings are provided in the packaging. But when a student gets a school-issued laptop, that fundamental documentation is withheld. That growing child is required to use a hazardous tool that OSHA regulated for adults decades ago, without any health or safety warnings at all. This is as much a consumer safety issue for students as it is anything else.

Without at least fundamental protections, the accelerated distribution and use of digital devices among growing children will continue to damage them, sometimes, for a lifetime. Myopia and obesity are two of the greatest threats facing students who spend their days sitting and staring into a screen -  made worse by remote learning and by less outdoor play, less recess, and sleep disturbances introduced by the screen's blue light. Disadvantaged kids suffer these impacts more than other groups because they also lack good nutrition and safe places to play outside. Each of these conditions introduces the potential for life-long health issues ranging from glaucoma and diabetes to heart disease and depression.

Maryland, Virginia and Texas have passed health and safety laws
This is a crucial issue with growing public awareness across the country. In 2018, I spearheaded the nation's first law to protect students from the documented health threats posed by the schools' demands for daily device use here in Maryland. I was instrumental in Virginia passing a similar law last year, which led the way for Texas to pass a law protecting students this year. My OpEds have been published in the Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun. You'll find mountains of research throughout my Twitter feed, and on my website, including links to the voluminous health warnings published by device makers HP and Dell.
Senator Van Hollen could lead the nation in making sure that all kids get the technology tools they'll need, along with the health and safety protections they deserve, and are legally owed. I hope you'll contact me with any questions or research inquiries. I have already spoken with Representative Raskin's office about this issue. CAMRA must include a review of health impacts from school devices as well as any other use of screens - students are entitled to a safe classroom, free of known hazards.

A recent report, entitled, Children's Health in the Digital Age  was published in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. It warns that "the health of future generations may be severely compromised if nothing is done to raise public awareness about the necessity for regulatory measures at individual and institutional levels that will effectively prompt children to change and self-monitor their interactions with digital environments wherever possible." 

A simple amendment could raise awareness, introduce safer habits and save this generation of kids from avoidable harm - I hope that Senator Van Hollen will take that important step forward on their behalf.  

Perhaps this information may inspire other Senators or Representatives to take appropriate actions and ensure that students are not harmed by their school-issued devices.

Cindy Eckard