Thursday, February 16, 2023

Health and safety guidelines for schools' digital devices announced in Louisiana

Children using digital devices are at risk for several impacts to their health, especially myopia, obesity, sleep disruptions and addiction. While social media is currently the focus of politicians and many children's health advocates, many people continue to question the schools' increasing demands for digital device use among growing children. 
New Louisiana law follows Maryland, Virginia and Texas

In 2016, I approached my Delegate to the Maryland General Assembly and he agreed to sponsor a bill that would protect students' health from the impacts of the schools' requirements for digital device use. It took two years, but in 2018, the first bill of its kind in the country passed unanimously in both the Maryland House and Senate and the governor signed it into law. Two years after that, using the Maryland law as a guide, Virginia passed the second law, providing health and safety oversight of classroom digital devices. The following year, Faith Colson, a Texas mom who had been following the Maryland legislation, was busy getting a similar one passed in her state as well.

Louisiana becomes 4th state to create health oversight of school devices
The most recent effort in Louisiana, the 4th state to pass a law creating health and safety guidelines for the schools' digital devices, was also the 4th mom-led effort. Dr. Holly Groh, an ophthalmologist, mother of four, and community leader in New Orleans, contacted me to see if we could get a law passed there, similar to the others. It took another two years to get it passed, but the new Louisiana law, sponsored by Representative Aimee Adatto Freeman, continues to improve student protections.

Remote learning impacted children's health, increasing both myopia and obesity, especially. And in Louisiana, where obesity rates were already high, the urgent need to address the health impacts of the schools' devices was made very clear to the General Assembly. The law (HB548) followed a joint resolution (HCR56) that had passed the previous year. 
Students describe their experience in written testimony and art
Louisiana Senate Education Committee testimony for the joint resolution, (which begins 18 minutes into the hearing), was compelling. Two high school students testified and later shared the dramatic artwork they had created independently which illustrated how physically and mentally uncomfortable the daily use of the schools' devices had made them during lockdown.  
One of the students told the Senate Education Committee, "I had to get glasses. And that really worried me... I saw that using a device was affecting me, but I didn't have a choice to not use it 'cause that's where all my school is on." The other said, "I'm just speaking for all teenagers that we want to be heard as well during this time and that our mental and physical health should be taken more into consideration."   

"For my piece titled “Unmasked”, I painted myself.

Artwork by Maren Antee
Underneath where my mask would cover my mouth and nose is slowly disintegrating and melting away from being hidden for so long. My hair is messy and my skin is sickly. I painted blue and different colors into the skin to represent the blue light from all of the technology and Zoom calls we have been on recently. Personally, I have had lots of trouble with the blue screen lights hurting my eyes. My eyes began to be bloodshot day after day from attending online classes, meetings, and simply doing daily homework and studying. During the height of the pandemic, a typical day for school was approximately 7 hours of online classes. Additionally, several days a week, I had meetings after school which lasted 1 hour. Then, I had a Tulane course that lasted 2 hours, and finally about 2 hours of studying and homework each night. This came to a total of 12 hours. However, on my breaks, my source of entertainment was my phone or the TV. This is why I decided to make my eyes closed in a peaceful state whilst in an unfavorable situation. Speaking on behalf of my peers, our mental and physical health wasn’t taken into consideration enough during the height of the pandemic and after. Even now that school is in person, teachers are still assigning homework and classwork online. I’m hoping that my statement and my painting will help you see how we have struggled with the overuse of technology in school." - Maren Antee


Artwork by Laney C.
“I am a high school junior and over this quarantine I’ve had to have a lot of time on my computer to do all my classes. Because of this when I went back to the eye doctor where usually I’m just sent away with “your eyes are fine”, they told me I had nearsightedness and I had to get glasses. That really worried me because, as someone who likes to do art, my eyesight is something that’s really important to me and something I depend on to make art so I was worried by how much using a device was affecting me. I didn’t really have a choice to not use it because my school was online, and now we don’t use paper at school. It’s just all tech. I was tired after school and I just couldn’t focus on stuff when I would just stare at my screen day after day. I think this research could be really important in trying to help in the future.” - Laney C.

Medical experts provide authentic guidance
The most important aspect of the Louisiana law was the establishment of a work group comprised of children's health specialists in a variety of fields, to work with the Louisiana Board of Education and the Department of Health and create a set of medically sound school health and safety guidelines. Experts in eye health, children's vision, sleep, obesity, orthopedics, pulmonology and cardiology all contributed to the dialogue, to ensure that the schools' devices will be used in ways that minimize health risks to the students.

The Louisiana health and safety guidelines created by the work group, were just released. A key recommendation in the new guidelines is the distribution of the digital device manufacturers' health and safety warnings, to help families better understand the health risks of the devices themselves. These warnings are usually not provided to the students or their families when the devices are distributed by schools, even though they are included in the original product packaging. The law further requires annual review of the guidelines, to ensure that the student protections reflect the latest medical insights and research.  
The LA Health and safety recommendations also include:

- increasing recess and time outdoors
- ensuring safe ergonomic configurations of the equipment
- staggering the use of devices throughout the school day to provide scheduled breaks
- setting proper audio levels
- not using devices during recess
- not using devices after dark
- a link to Louisiana's substantial 16-page student privacy guidebook
Additional research

School is the child's workplace, but students have no workplace protections from documented health hazards. Children are forced to use a consumer product - a digital device - with no consumer product protections. The notion that 'recreational' screen use should be limited, while equally hazardous educational use is encouraged is simply craven. Students' health should not be traded for an education. Sedentary behavior is sedentary behavior whatever the setting. Near work on a screen contributes to myopia regardless of the content, and blue light affects children's sleep patterns no matter what they're viewing. "Educational" screen use has been given a pass for far too long. Schools systems - guided by the U.S. Department of Education's Ed Tech plans - never performed any risk analyses on the health impacts to growing children required to use these devices every day.

The myriad health risks children face are actually worse than those facing adults because kids are still growing. Their eyes are still changing and so are their bones and brains. Many of the chronic impacts of daily screen use, such as high myopia and obesity, can introduce lifelong health issues, including glaucoma, diabetes, and heart disease, so prevention of the original conditions is critical. There is good news however: research has shown that simply getting children back outside on the playground can help them avoid many of the health impacts introduced by the schools' demands for more screen use.

But the increased demands for online classwork have displaced recess and outdoor play in many schools, so students are twice denied a healthy learning environment. Unlike social media, students have little or no choice when it comes to the use of school devices. Not only are they required to sit indoors tethered to a screen (increasing sedentary behavior and visual near-work)  but they are also denied the time outdoors that decades of research shows is necessary for the healthy development of their bodies, brains, eyes and vision. They are, essentially, required to hurt their own health, because of the growing demands placed on them from their schools to sit inside and stare at a screen.

Moving forward

There is a simple lesson to be learned from the passage of these laws: schools have been failing in their legal obligation to protect students in their care. Children are now paying the price for this lack of due diligence with their health: obesity and myopia are both now at epidemic proportions while most school systems ignore their duty of care. So legislative action has been needed.

It shouldn't take the passage of laws to get kids protected, but at least now those parents who are motivated to take action have examples they can draw upon, to illustrate the need for health and safety oversight of the schools' equipment. The next state general assemblies will be easier to convince, with this growing list of legislative wins, and sadly, with the growing evidence that children have been negatively impacted.

But if you're not ready to head to the state capitol, perhaps the best place to start is with your own kids - make sure they have a complete dilated eye exam. Make sure they spend more time offline and outside. And ask your school's leadership what steps are being taken to provide healthy and safe practices for your child's use of school equipment.
Cindy Eckard 

Cindy Eckard is a Maryland parent with a technology and communications background who led the effort to create the first health and safety best practices for schools' digital devices in the country (HB1110/CH244).  Maryland passed the law in 2018.  Since then, she has worked with advocates in several other states to pass laws that protect students from these known hazards. Her editorials have appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun , and  Psychology Today. Ms. Eckard's video participation in Screen Time Colorado details the beginning of her efforts. Ms. Eckard's testimony is available in the archives of several Maryland state committees, including the Joint Committee on Information Technology, Cybersecurity and Biotechnology;  House Ways and Means; and the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. Ms. Eckard's Twitter account highlights the latest medical research relevant to children's health impacts from the schools' digital devices: @screensandkids