Maryland mother pushes for screen time regulations in schools

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan signs the nation’s first school digital device screen safety legislation into law on April 24, 2018, requiring best practices to be outlined by July 1, 2019.

Science’s verdict is still out on whether exposure to screens is causing permanent damage to our eyes. But one Kent Island mother says it’s indisputably an issue for children whose eyes “haven’t yet built up defenses” to the light emitted by electronic devices.

Cindy Eckard, a Stevensville resident who headed a recently passed Maryland bill that calls for screen-use regulations in schools, said, without state intervention, “Maryland students could remain unprotected from the myriad health risks posed by the schools’ digital devices.”

Of the main health risks potentially posed to students, Eckard listed “myopia, dry eye disease, retinal damage, obesity, addiction, sleeplessness, and increasingly, mental illness,” which she said are reaching “epidemic proportions.”

Eckard said when she asked administrators at her child’s school whether there were safety measures in place for the use of digital devices, “they looked at me like I was crazy.”

“So I had to take it to the state to get a law passed and I finally did,” she said.

In April 2018, both the Maryland House of Representatives and the Senate unanimously passed the Health and Safety Best Practices — Digital Devices bill for which Eckard pushed. It was signed into law by Governor Hogan soon after.

The bill, HB-1110, requires the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) to come up with a list of “best practices” to regulate how kids interact with screens in schools, and to introduce those practices to state school districts for consideration by July 1, 2019.

One of the bill’s biggest supporters, the Maryland State Medical Society (MedChi), wrote a letter of support to legislators, saying there is a “growing body of evidence that there are serious potential health risks for children associated with excessive use of digital devices.”

The letter also called it “critical” to develop health and safety guidelines to “ensure that those risks are accounted for...”

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), though, the effects of blue light — the harmful light that beams from digital accessories — are still being researched. And the evidence in either direction is not concrete.

The AAO has attributed the negative symptoms many people experience after extensive exposure to the rays — like eye pain and headaches — to decreased blinking, and not necessarily to the light itself being harmful.

Even so, Eckard’s concerns for her children’s safety can be considered justified by the fact that myopia, or nearsightedness, is now being seen in “world-wide epidemic” proportions.

The disease has affected 47 percent of Americans since the 1970s, and nearly 90 percent of teens and adults in Asia, as reported by the AAO.

“Clearly, something is going on,” the AAO wrote on its website. “But scientists can’t agree on exactly what.”

In the days leading up to the MSDE’s July 1 deadline, Eckard said she’s not sure what to expect from the department because, at this point, they have been reluctant to make their progress on the proposed best practices public.

MSDE Director of Communications William Reinhard said he was told the information was only required to be made public on July 1, and “that’s what we’ll do.”

Despite the support Eckard has gotten from legislators, medical professionals, teachers and parents, there are still many hurdles that need to be cleared before she’ll feel confident in the department, she said.

One of those hurdles is an on-going battle with the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) — of which technology companies such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft and HP, are members.

Eckard said not long after the governor signed the legislation, the tech companies stuck their hands in to reduce the bill’s power to effect real change in the state’s school system.

“We have this [education] tech lobby invited to the table, while parents and teachers were left out,” she said. “When you’re talking about the health and safety of our children, it seems a little unbalanced.”

The lobbyists, she said, are pushing to turn the legislation into more of a suggestion than a law by removing compliance and accountability sections that would discourage the schools from opting out of safe practices.

“[The lobbyists] really don’t have an investment whatsoever in children’s health,” Eckard said. “They only have an investment in proliferating evermore broadband and digital device use among a very vulnerable population.”

Eckard, who has worked in tech since 1984 and even worked on the original Macintosh computer, said her motivation for heading this legislation was to ensure the safety of her own children.

Some of the practices Eckard said she hopes to see implemented are scheduled routine breaks from screens, more frequent eye exams for students, blue light filters on all school-issued devices, and safe work-station settings. This includes proper monitor height and angle, as well as adjustments for glare and contrast.

On her blog, www.screensandkids.us, Eckard wrote that the importance of the bill is “it officially acknowledges the health threat posed to students by the digital device use required by the schools.”

The bill was the first of its kind to pass in the nation. But other states are expected to follow suit, with the encouragement of non-profit organizations like Parents Across America, which played a significant role in developing the Maryland law.

Eckard’s hope for the legislation’s future, she said, is that “true protections are put in place to address the health risks the school’s devices impose” and that “Maryland leads the nation in classroom screen safety.”

The health and safety best practices will be available to view online Monday, July 1, at www.marylandpublicschools.org

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