Distance learning stirs fears of excessive screen time

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Christine Whalen has a spirited 5-year-old who started kindergarten in the fall. It’s not going well. Ella is so bored on Zoom that she quickly squirms, wiggles and tries to run away.

One day when Whalen left the room for a while, she returned to find her baby girl lying on the floor, sticking her leg so high in the air that all the teacher could see was her little foot. Another day, Ella snuck completely out of the room, leaving a Cookie Monster stuffed animal in her seat to trick the professor.

While Whalen sees the humor in these events, she also worries that Ella may not be coming out of kindergarten, and that’s not all. Her biggest concern is shared by many parents and healthcare professionals across California and the country that all of this forced screen time is not developmentally appropriate for young children.

“I know schools have a mandate to teach a certain number of hours, but I think it comes at the expense of children’s learning and, more importantly, their love of learning,” he said. said Whalen, aLawyer struggles to do her own job from her Oakland home while coaxing Ella to stare at a screen for two to three hours a day five days a week. “And that’s not good for our relationship because we have power struggles. It’s hard to apply because I don’t think it’s fair. I know it’s bad for his brain. It is really depressing. Like all parents, I want to do the right thing for my child.

Family life has been disrupted in countless ways during the Covid pandemic. Among them, the nature of our relationship to screens. After years of being warned by experts in child development that limiting screen time is one of the keys to raising healthy and well-adjusted children in the digital age, parents are now forced to to herd on kids during long days of Zoom school and online homework. .

The tension of distance learning has exacerbated parents’ concerns over a fundamental question: How much screen time is too much for young children?

Experts say too much screen time can have alarming effects on brain development. A landmark National Institutes of Health study of 10,000 children who started in 2018 found this those who spent more than two hours a day using screens scored lower on language and thinking tests.

Some children with more than seven hours a day of screen time have also experienced thinning of the cerebral cortex, the area related to critical thinking and reasoning.

Many parents are also concerned that their children will start to forgo physical and social activities for digital activities. SThere are also concerns that too much screen time will distract from the joy of the educational experience.

Many children live on their screens. In the majority of homes, the pandemic has only added to this. Add to that the fact that kids who use remote or hybrid models in school can spend a lot of screen hours per day, ”said Richard Bromfield, professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. “Are you getting into cabin fever and what should the kids and parents do?” It’s easy to get into endless control battles around your kids’ screens. ”

the The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under 18 months of age avoid using screens.

For children aged 2 to 5, they suggest limiting screen use to one hour per day of high-quality programming. For children aged 6 and over, they recommend “consistent limits”.

But for many parents, setting limits in a media-saturated, virus-laden environment is next to impossible. Distance learning can take up to four hours of live instruction a day and that does not include the time needed to do homework that needs to be completed on a computer.

Many children also record a lot of leisure time on screens. Children ages 8 to 12 in the United States spend an average of four to six hours a day watching or using screens, and teens spend up to nine hours, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. .

Some experts counter that given the myriad of pressures families are currently under, excessive screen time should no longer be a major concern. Parents should allow themselves to be more relaxed, they say.

“We are experiencing massive culture shock. Families have enough stress to deal with, and screen minutes count should be low on everyone’s list of concerns, ”shelps Michael Robb, Senior Research Director for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group that examines multimedia content for children.

Yet for some parents, the pandemic has heightened fears they already had about screen time. Liz Shipsides has long feared that her boys, James, 12, George, 10, and Louis, 6, are spending too much time playing the popular online game Fortnite, for example. But that was during distance learning in the spring at Fremont Unified that she was horrified to realize that screen time had started to dominate family life.

“Being glued to the screen for school turned them more into other screens,” said Shipsides, who recently moved her family from the Bay Area to Minnesota largely so she could send the boys to school. school in person. “George is now so addicted to television that he sets his alarm to wake up to watch it. They might already have a trend for screens, but I think the Zoom school accentuated it. I also think the children are less healthy because of Zoom. They are less inclined to do anything physical. Children have less stamina and seem less able to concentrate. “

Whalen’s biggest fear is that little Ella will start to hate school just when she should discover the love of learning. She worries that Ella’s boredom with Zoom will spoil her appreciation for school long after kindergarten is over.

“It’s the saddest thing about all of this for me,” she said. “She keeps saying that she wants to go back to kindergarten and that she doesn’t want to go to Zoom class. She still wants to ignore it.

Shipsides also noted that the increase in screen time, coupled with social distancing, made her sons more prone to emotional outbursts.

“I couldn’t stand to see George cry out of the blue any longer,” she said. “I was really struggling with the emotional outbursts.”

Development experts agree that increasing screen time can lead to greater emotional vulnerability in children.

“As kids spend more time online, I would advise parents to watch for signs of anxiety, depression, stress and sadness as kids deal with social isolation differently,” said Casey Gray, pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente Fresno.

To make matters worse, domination electronic communications and digital media may be among the causes of the increase in mental health problems today, Based on research published by the American Psychological Association.

During this time of social upheaval, with families grappling with the stress of living through a pandemic and economic crisis, many parents are also concerned about whether this period of extreme screen time immersion will have any impact. impact on their children’s school future.

I want education officials to realize how much Zoom Kindergarten is for children. I know how worried teachers are about going back to school, but I want education officials to prioritize getting young children back to school in person. I wish school districts had worked harder to come up with more creative solutions, such as outdoor modules with teachers and district helpers, ”Whalen said. “I think the toll this takes on a lot of these kids is huge.”

Now, as the virus invades the country and most California reverts to most restrictive purple level, distance learning can be a lifelong reality for many students. Some school campuses that are currently open under a hybrid model may need to return to full-time distance education and others face the prospect of a full year of distance learning.

Even after the threat of contagion has subsided, health experts note that screen time will remain an important factor in the health and well-being of children.

“It’s important to have rules about how electronic devices are used, when and where devices should be kept,” Gray said. “In the past, I have encouraged parents not to have electronic devices in children’s rooms. ”

Children also learn by imitating their elders, and experts say parents should model the behavior they want to see.

“If we are constantly alone, distracted and not directly involved with our children, how can we expect them to behave any differently?” Gray said. “Now is the time for parents to think outside the box, put our devices away and actively involve our children.”

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