According to the National Retail Federation, back-to-school spending could reach over $100 billion for the first time in 2020. That’s because families are buying more expensive supplies like laptops for a school year that will be taught fully or partially online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This brings with it the challenge of managing screen time for children of all ages. Parents, doctors, and child development experts worry that kids are spending too much time online already, leading to all kinds of short- and long-term problems.
Screen Time Challenges to Physical Health
“I feel like it directly impacts behavior and eyesight,” said Zaiba Hasan, a mother of four, and a podcaster at Mommying While Muslim. “My nine-year-old started getting frequent headaches in the spring, so I had to take him to the eye doctor and we purchased blue light blocking glasses to help ease some of the stress on the eye.”
There is also the issue of sedentary behavior, which she said, “leads to a general malaise.”
“The physical drawbacks show us that we need to think about how our kids' bodies need to be fortified and given time to heal and compensate for this new kind of learning,” said Amina Rahman, a teacher at Alif Schoolhouse in Chicago.
“Outdoor time, increased period of freedom of movement, tumbling, jumping, and running in open spaces, and strengthening of core muscles can help address these problems,” she suggested. “These can also help with the lack of attention and focus as well as emotional resilience. In fact, stimulating the vestibular system is a great way of inducing focus.”
Varying how we sit and increasing in-person interaction in the home can also help better manage the physical drawbacks of online learning.
“We have to plan to counter sitting for long periods, and we need to alternate sitting on chairs and sofas with using traditional sitting on the floor at times for our health,” advised Susan Labadi, an educational consultant and President of Genius School, Inc. outside Chicago.
“Knowing your child's school schedule, anticipate when you both can get some fresh air and exercise,” she said. “Not only will you energize your body, you will have the chance to connect personally. The use of technology has benefits and limitations, and having an opportunity to connect physically and emotionally with each other is a great way to improve your relationship that has dividends beyond the present.”
Screen Time’s Effects on Mental Health
Studies have linked more time on screens, be they phones, laptops, or game consoles, to lower psychological well-being in children. It also profoundly affects how kids learn on a personal level.
“Education is ultimately about the construction of intimate and productive learning relationships,” said Anthony Riccio, Academic Counselor and Director of Student Advisory at the King Abdullah Academy in Herndon, Virginia. “It’s the relationship that educates, not the teacher alone. Our physical presence in the classroom allows us to constantly build, and rebuild when needed, connecting with students through gesture, facile expression, or simply with a reassuring hand on a shoulder.”
“This isn’t the ideal form of learning for students,” said Kathryn Jones, founder and head educator of Back To The Fitrah Mentoring Academy in Melbourne, Australia. “The depth of understanding is very limited when it’s done through technology and not through the learning experience of being in the classroom.”
“You’ll find that children’s behavior will very much go off track because they're quite disconnected from human connection,” she warned.
“It is setting kids up for more addictive behaviors,” Jones added, pointing out that students often multitask, skipping around to chats with friends, to YouTube, and other websites and apps, even as they attend class online.
Managing Exposure to Sexual Content
An additional peril of more screen time for school is the increased risk of children coming across inappropriate material. About 34 percent of internet users have experienced unwanted exposure to pornographic content through ads, pop up ads, misdirected links, or emails.
“The Fitra (natural state of goodness) of the children gets destroyed when they come across things that are inappropriate for their age,” Jones explained. “You can’t unsee something once you’ve seen it. It’s so easy to happen if you’re not constantly watching.”
While many parents have programs on their children’s devices to block such material, parental supervision is still important. Part of that includes limiting who contacts kids on websites where they can play games, as well as switching to a children’s version of certain websites, like moving from YouTube to YouTube Kids, Rahman suggested.
Overall, a general rule to follow, Riccio advised, is “no devices behind closed doors, including computers for classes. You don’t need to constantly look over their shoulder, but create a scenario that allows your child to know that you can see what they are doing.”
“My children are adults at this point, (but) one thing they did tell me though is that I should have been more aware of them using the Internet in their bedrooms late at night,” said Labadi. “Parents should be advised to keep Internet use in the commonly trafficked areas of the home.”
Riccio also recommended checking browser histories “not to spy but to ensure your child has not viewed anything they may struggle to process. If you see something troubling then you should initiate compassionate dialogue.”
He also said it’s important to ask children in a conversational way what they have viewed online. “The goal is not to catch them in the act but to be present in their lives.”
“Open communication is really important because you can't really shelter them from everything,” Rahman noted.
Rules for Managing Screen Time for School and Other Activities
Riccio breaks down screen time into three parts.
Passive: Watching videos or movies, which he said should be limited, and content should be monitored. He suggested no more than 30 minutes a day of this.
Interactive: Video games, online texts, live online classes, and virtual museum tours.
“For these activities, I would be more concerned about the content than the time,” he said. “There are many video games that are both rich and narrative and interactive enough to function like works of art or literature. Parents should also take advantage of the many organizations that offer live online classes. Don’t hesitate to enroll your child in additional classes if they are interested in the subject matter. Virtual museum tours are also a great activity for families to participate in together.”
Social: “Children need to socialize and technology provides a great alternative during the pandemic,” he noted. “Parents should schedule regular Zoom or video call playdates with friends and relatives. While I wouldn’t recommend that this be done every day, two or three opportunities each week would be both manageable and beneficial. Creative parents may even want to participate by reading stories or creating online games using tools like Kahoot. Teachers should also facilitate by connecting parents.”
One suggestion is to end screen time with the school day.
“Once children are finished the school day I have enforced a no electronics rule,” said Sarah Khan, an educator at Ilm Montessori in Lombard, Illinois, about restrictions she maintains for her own children. “Kids should be given some physical activities outside or in the basement, arts and crafts, house chores, baking or cooking in the kitchen. It has been easier to implement the above rule since my kids go to a Montessori school and I implement the same methodology at home while raising them.
Hasan said she plans to “limit the screen time to school days, for only school work. We have already told them that our normal school schedule will be in place regardless of them being at home. This works for my younger children. For my older children, we will be taking their phones at night again, to ensure proper sleep habits and limited exposure to screens during nighttime hours.”
Rahman also recommended having kids engage in “detox days”, where kids don’t go on screens at all or only until later in the day. She did this with her own children, but said it was challenging.
“Sometimes we did a few days in a row of no screens until 3 pm. The kids are super cranky on those days, because they physically need to detox,” she said.
Rahman noted that while her children constantly complained of boredom, screen-free days help kids build skills, creativity, and resilience.
“Don't get sucked into solving your kids' boredom issues,” she said. “You are taking away an opportunity for them to reflect, problem solve, be creative, explore their own interests, and develop their personality.”