Schools look at screens for start times, homework policy

With public pressure mounting against the district’s plan to start school later in the fall of 2019, members of the Board of Education and administration have begun to talk about one aspect of adolescent sleep that parents opposed to the change have persistently brought forth — the impact viewing a digital screen before bed has on students’ ability to get a good night’s sleep.

That’s in response to a mountain of research that suggests the light emitted from the screens of electronic devices — computers, cell phones, tablets, among others — suppresses the body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that helps the body fall asleep.

“Let’s start with a focus on the use of ‘screens’ and social media before bedtime, and our homework policies, which have been ‘under review’ since my RHS freshman was in elementary school … with no apparent progress,” said parent Sean McEvoy during public comments at the board’s April 23 meeting.

“These two items can have the largest impact … immediately and can be undertaken with far less funding and far less disruption to our families.”

Acting Superintendent Dr. Robert Miller, who also leads the district’s later start time initiative, said the light “mimics sunlight, and when your body registers sunlight [it] actually helps to suppress melatonin.”

The blue light emitted from screens in particular has been shown to affect the ability to fall asleep in both adolescents and adults.

“When that blue light is switched off, it helps your body produce melatonin, which helps your body get to sleep,” Miller said in a phone interview with The Press on Thursday, April 26.

Parents’ scrutiny of screen usage also comes as the schools are revamping the district’s homework policy as part of later start times.

The draft of the new policy should be put forward to the board at one of its two meetings in May, with a vote in June, Miller said.

Switching off the light

One way to switch off the blue light is to put electronic devices into “nightshift,” as it’s called on Apple devices. The setting filters out some of the blue light from the screen.

“My sense is that most people don’t know that you can do this,” Miller said. “I think people had heard before that you shouldn’t use your cell phone before you go to sleep, but I don’t think they really knew why.”

Asked whether the setting to cut out blue light was enabled on students’ school-issued Chromebooks — he wears a third hat as the district’s technology director — Miller said the night-shift mode is still in development.

“When we collect them over the summer we might need to do them one Chromebook at a time,” Miller said, asked whether the schools could enable the setting on students’ laptops by default.

He personally has the setting turned on on all three of the devices he uses — an iPhone, MacBook and iPad.

Even he has a hard time putting a device down a half-hour before bed, as sleep experts recommend. “I have trouble with that — it’s recommended you do so, but I struggle with that,” he said.

Start times?

Parents who support later start times acknowledged the impact screens have on adolescent sleep cycles, but said changing screen time wouldn’t do enough.

“Parents can give their kids blue light blocking devices like apps and glasses, but those devices won’t change kids’ basic biology: Teens can’t learn well early in the morning and elementary kids can’t learn well late in the afternoon,” said Colleen Broderick and Gigi Christel of Start School Later Ridgefield.

“Schools have a responsibility to help, too. Adjusting homework load or shortening the school day are helpful, and blue light blockers, too, but doctors tell us that those measures are not sufficient to resolve the health risks. Kids need to sleep and learn when their biology dictates — just like a 2-year-old needs to nap.”


Asked whether giving students laptops increases the impact screens have on sleep, Miller pointed out that students would still be up late working on homework in paper textbooks if the district changed start times without also tackling the homework policy.

“If you’re assigning homework until 11 o’clock at night,” then students would still be up until that hour working on their assignments, he said.

“At that point we need to look at, Are we assigning too much homework? … all of those things that are leading to them doing homework at 10 or 11 o’clock at night,” Miller said.

‘Hooked and addicted’

Miller also highlighted the role social media plays in keeping students’ eyes on phone and computer screens into the night.

“As a society I think we are generally hooked and addicted to social media,” he said. “One of the pieces of advice I have for families is … [keeping] the cell phone charging bank downstairs in another room.”

“This is not done in isolation. … Sometimes it’s just a matter of communicating what the options are for parents,” he said.