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Maryland Focuses on Kids' Digital Health

Maryland the first state in the nation to require that digital health impacts be considered when statewide standards for the use of technology are being developed.

Kids' digital well-being is about balance -- balancing the opportunities that technology offers for learning and discovery with the potential for overuse, distraction, and threats to online safety. As the result of a law that just passed in Maryland, educators and health professionals in the state will develop health and safety best practices over the next year in order to protect students from health risks that may arise from the increasing use of digital devices in schools.

Governor Larry Hogan recently signed HB 1110, making Maryland the first state in the nation to require that digital health impacts be considered when statewide standards for the use of technology are being developed. The legislation passed the Maryland Assembly 139 to 0 and the Maryland Senate 44 to 0, an overwhelming display of bipartisan interest on behalf of kids' digital wellness.

The New York Times reported that pediatricians joined parents in worrying about "unintended physical and emotional consequences" of technology, including with vision, sleep, and device compulsion. Optometrists counseled that much more research is needed on how to best protect our eyes.

The new law will spark important discussions, including whether the way devices are used in schools poses a health risk at all. A spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics explained one of the challenges for schools and parents is a real lack of research on the digital health impacts of being online. "As a doctor, my answer is always to get the data. Right now, we have anecdotes," noted David Hill.

Common Sense is sponsoring legislation in California, the Digital Health Research Act, designed to fund research on kids' digital health. We are also sponsors of a similar federal research bill upcoming from Senator Ed Markey (D-Ma.) that would provide NIH funding to better understand the impact of tech on kids' health. More research would help doctors in Maryland and everywhere better understand the upsides and downsides of technology. Common Sense also continues to advocate for strong digital citizenship programs around the country (akin to driver's education for the internet, the free curriculum is already in 55,000 schools) to ensure that kids have the tools they need to engage safely, responsibly, and positively online.

Maryland's law came about because of the dogged efforts of Cindy Eckard, a mom and kids' health advocate, who founded a grassroots organization to push for the change. Eckard tells us, "Having spent over 20 years selling and developing high-tech communication platforms, I knew the serious medical risks that digital devices introduce. Associated health hazards have been documented by the CDC, OSHA, and the Surgeon General for many years … So when my children's school required students to use a device every day, I asked what health safeguards were in place. There were none. That's when I knew we needed legislation to protect our kids. We needed to get doctors involved in the conversation. Now they are." HB 1110 was supported by Common Sense as well as parent allies like the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood and the Maryland State Medical Association.

Digital media and technology hold great promise for transforming education and enhancing learning for children. The digital divide is still persistent, and ensuring digital equity and inclusion must remain a high priority. Young people -- at ever-younger ages -- are using the immense power of the internet and mobile technologies to explore, connect, create, and learn in ways never before imagined, both at home and in school. While Maryland has sent a message with the resounding passage of this legislation, the hopefully robust and research-informed debate over how to help kids thrive in our digital age has only just begun.

Elizabeth Galicia