Dr. Kristen Hughes, from left, Melissa Quigley and Laura Rhoads are members of Techwise SB and want the Santa Barbara Unified School District to reconsider its iPad program.
Dr. Kristen Hughes, from left, Melissa Quigley and Laura Rhoads are members of Techwise SB and want the Santa Barbara Unified School District to reconsider its iPad program. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

A group of parents, pediatricians, counselors and other community officials are calling on the Santa Barbara Unified School District to halt the distribution of take-home iPads for students in second grade and under, block YouTube access on elementary campuses and provide parents with training on how to avoid excessive screen time.

The group, called TechWise SB, submitted a letter recently to the Santa Barbara district with more than 200 people in support of the effort.

The members say that iPads were unveiled for young students during the COVID-19 pandemic, but now the district needs to rethink that policy because students are accessing their iPads excessively, rather than socializing, exercising or playing. 

“Just because we give everyone a device doesn’t mean we have tech equity,” Melissa Quigley, a Santa Barbara Unified School District psychologist, told Noozhawk.

Quigley said her job is to take care of the well-being of students, but that in general she has seen much more depression and anxiety, less attention to detail, loss of short-term memory and problems with decision-making.

They want the district to also remove YouTube access on elementary campuses because the search can pull up inappropriate activity. She said many children are using the YouTube search bar to ask questions like adults do with Google

“The filters are not wonderful,” she said. “You can still get quite excessive content.”

A group of parents has been speaking at the school board meetings during public comment. Since it is not on the agenda, the board cannot legally discuss the matter. However, the district has scheduled the item to be on the agenda for its next meeting in two weeks.

Board member Laura Capps briefly acknowledged the TechWise SB group during her comments on Tuesday.

“I just want to thank the advocates we have heard from the last couple of weeks, from TechWise,” Capps said. “Those who are concerned about screentime, the emails, the calls that we had, that one meeting that I did was so incredibly thoughtful and respectful, well-researched, very reasonable in your approach. I look forward to future conversation.”

The group’s letter states: “We understand that 1-to-1 iPads were adopted for our youngest students under emergency circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. These emergency circumstances have passed, schools have reopened, and the district needs to now address the risks and potential harm posed by 1-to-1 iPads. While we appreciate that the district is developing a framework for supporting students in digital citizenship, our concerns are unrelated to digital citizenship and cannot be addressed by that framework. We are particularly concerned about the impact of 1-to-1 iPads on our youngest learners.”

Kristen Hughes, a pediatrician who works for the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, told Noozhawk that the health problems have worsened since the pandemic began.

“I serve the most vulnerable youth, with the lowest socio-economic status in the community,” Hughes said. “We were already dealing with pediatric obesity. It is harder for me now to motive my patients to be active and move around.”

She said she recently treated a child who was tired, sad and obese — the opposite of how they were before the pandemic. The child had a fatty liver and other health problems. The child, she said, was spending several hours a day on the iPad distributed through the Santa Barbara Unified School District.

The devices, she said, are loaded with apps and access to the Internet and YouTube.

She said most of the parents of her patients work multiple jobs and aren’t able to monitor their child’s screen time.

“We are certainly not anti-tech in schools,” Hughes said. “I want to speak to safe and healthy tech use.”

The iPad, she said, is not a neutral learning tool like the pencil.

“Not all have the means to safely use it,” she said.

The group wants to see the following changes:

» Remove one-to-one iPads from the youngest learners (transitional kindergarten to at least second grade) in favor of classroom-based iPads.

» Remove access to YouTube on elementary school campuses. Some teachers use YouTube for learning purposes, so if removal of YouTube is not feasible, the district should consider waiting until students are much older to provide one-to-one iPads.

» Provide all parents of children who receive iPads written information and virtual or in-person training on the risks of screen time and how to monitor it. Information should cover: risks of excessive screen time, the need for supervised use, the potential for students to access inappropriate content, how to monitor their child’s use (e.g., how to track their child’s screen time, how to delete unwanted apps, how to access the history), and who to contact if they want more direct support. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers a Family Media Use Plan that could help with the creation of such a training.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at jmolina@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.