This is an op-ed by Cindy Eckard:
Researchers at the University of Southern California recently found that increased computer screen time is responsible for our country’s current epidemic of myopia.
Meanwhile, a legislative effort began in Maryland that would mandate computer-safety guidelines in public schools. Did this research — which included 9,000 children — persuade Maryland lawmakers to do the right thing and require computer safety for our children?
National health organizations weighed in, too: Prevent Blindness America and its National Center for Children’s Vision and Eye Health endorsed the legislation. But their support was never mentioned by members of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Senator Joan Carter Conway.
The Maryland Children’s Environmental Health and Protection Advisory Council also endorsed the bill — agreeing that safety guidelines need to be created to prevent the known health hazards posed especially to children. The Senators ignored the medical advice of that group, too. They ignored parents, clinicians, optometrists, ophthalmologists, and voluminous scientific documentation as well.
The Senate EHEA Committee hearing was pro forma: not one question was asked by committee members and no discussion took place. No opposition to the bill was mentioned. Still, the committee unanimously voted against it. Senate Bill 1150 would have required the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to work with the schools to make sure that our children are protected from the health risks associated with daily computer use: myopia, blurred vision, headaches, dry eyes, neck/shoulder pain, and the cumulative retinal damage caused by excessive screen time.
OSHA has protected office workers from the health risks of computer monitors since 1997, but our growing children, who are more vulnerable to eye damage than adults, have no safety regulations in place at all.
Among those lawmakers who turned their backs on our kids are two Baltimore County senators. One of them is a nurse who should have lead this health effort. Shame on you, Senator Nathan-Pulliam. But at least you stayed for the hearing; Johnny Ray Salling just got up and left.
Even after the bill was buried in the Senate committee, Montgomery County Delegate Sheila Hixson had a real opportunity to have it heard in her Ways and Means Committee in the House. But she didn’t pursue it, either.
It’s hard to imagine this many elected officials refused to provide safeguards for our children, when they knew that national blindness prevention groups supported this legislation. That’s how critical this effort is: our children are at risk for permanent eye damage because of the increased screen time in school.
Since the close of the legislative session, DHMH Secretary Van Mitchell has been contacted directly. His department must do its job now, regardless of legislation, and set uniform, enforceable state guidelines. Without statewide medical oversight, individual school districts can cobble together inadequate, random “safety policies” that fail to provide real protection for our children.
DHMH operates Health Departments in all counties, each of which oversees school health issues like this one. DHMH already provides hearing and vision testing. Computer screen safety is a logical extension of their current responsibilities, now that our kids can be forced to use computers all day at school. Only medical practitioners and environmental health experts, armed with medical insight and up-to-date information, can provide real health protection for Maryland students.
I have refused PARCC testing for my children because of the excessive screen time that is required. PARCC regulations require elementary school children to use a computer for as much as an hour and a half straight, for testing. Students are allowed just one 3-minute break — if the test coordinator agrees.
The testing goes on for days. Middle school kids get the same 3-minute break, but they are forced to stare into a computer monitor for as much as 110 minutes at a time. That’s right — almost two hours, and the kids get only one tiny break. Maybe.
Parents need to understand that they can protect their children from this punitive experience and its associated health risks. They can refuse the PARCC testing. Make sure your children aren’t physically damaged by the state’s curriculum or its assessments. Students might soon face even more screen time, because the Maryland State Department of Education is now trying to make PARCC test scores a requirement for graduation.
Secretary Mitchell, it’s time to intercede and do your job. Children are also Maryland citizens who do not give up their rights to safety and health protections just because they walk into a school.
–Cindy Eckard of Queen Anne’s County is the mother of two children who attend public schools. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.