Photo credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times / Polaris

Christine Whalen has a spirited 5 year old who started school in the fall. It’s not going well. Ella is so bored with Zoom that she winds and wobbles quickly and tries to escape.

One day, when Whalen was leaving the room for a moment, she came back to find her little girl lying on the floor with her leg so high in the air that the teacher could only see her tiny foot. Another day, Ella snuck completely out of the room, leaving a stuffed animal from the cookie monster on her seat to fool the teacher.

Although Whalen sees the humor in these events, she also worries that Ella is getting little out of kindergarten, and that doesn’t stop there. Their bigger concern is shared by many parents and health professionals across California and across the country: All of this enforced screen time is developmentally inadequate for young children.

“I know schools have a mandate to teach a certain number of hours, but I think that’s at the expense of the children’s learning and, most importantly, their love of learning,” said Whalen, aA lawyer struggling to do his own job from his Oakland home while convincing Ella to stare at a screen for two to three hours a day, five days a week. “And it’s not good for our relationship because we have power struggles. It’s hard to get through because I don’t think it’s right. I know it’s bad for your brain. It’s really depressing. Like all parents, I want to do what’s right for my child. “

Family life was disrupted in countless ways during the Covid pandemic. Among them is the nature of our relationship with screens. After years of warning from child development experts that limiting screen time is one of the keys to raising healthy, well-adjusted children in the digital age, parents are now forced to herd children for long days of zoom school and online homework.

The burden of distance learning has exacerbated parents’ concerns about a key question: How much screen time is too much for young children?

Experts say that too much screen time can have alarming effects on brain development. A landmark National Health Institute study from 10,000 children that started found in 2018 The Those who spent more than two hours a day with screens scored fewer points on language and thinking tests.

Some children with more than seven hours of screen time per day also experienced cerebral thinning related to critical thinking and thinking.

Many parents also fear that their children will forego physical and social activities for digital activities. S.Some also fear that too much screen time could suck up the joy of the educational experience.

Many children live on their screens. In most households, the pandemic has only contributed to this. Add that children who use remote or hybrid models in school may do a lot of screen hours per day, ”he said Richard Bromfield, Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School. “Trigger cabin fever and what should children and parents do? Getting into endless control battles over your kids’ screens is easy. ”

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

For children 2 to 5 years of age, it is recommended that they limit their screen usage to one hour per day for high quality programs. For children from 6 years of age they recommend “uniform limit values”.

For many parents, however, it is next to impossible to set limits in a media-saturated and virus-laden environment. Remote learning can require up to four Hours of live lessons a day and that doesn’t include the time it takes to do homework that needs to be done on a computer.

Many children also log a lot of free time on screens. Children ages 8 to 12 in the United States spend an average of four to six hours a day viewing or using screens, and teenagers 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 under right now, excessive screen time shouldn’t be a big problem anymore. Parents should cut themselves more loosely, they say.

“We are experiencing a massive cultural shock. Families are stressed enough to deal with this, and screen minute counting should be very low on any list of concerns for each of us. “Help Michael Robb, Senior Director of Research for Common Sense Media, A non-profit group that reviews media content for children.

However, for some parents, the pandemic has deepened concerns they already had about screen time. Liz Shipsides has long worried that her boys James (12), George (10) and Louis (6) spend too much time playing the popular online game Fortnite, for example. But it was during distance learning Unified in Spring in Fremont that she was appalled to find that screen time was beginning to dominate family life.

“When they were taped on the screen for school, they became more like other screens,” said Shipsides, who recently relocated her family from the Bay Area to Minnesota so the boys could mostly be sent to personal school. “George is so addicted to television now that he sets his alarm clock to wake up and see it. You may already have a tendency towards screens, but I think the Zoom school accentuated it. I also think that the kids are less healthy because of Zoom. They are less inclined to do anything physical. The children have less stamina and seem to be less able to concentrate. “

Whalen’s greatest fear is that little Ella will start hating school if she finds a love for studying. She fears Ella’s boredom with Zoom will affect her appreciation for school long after kindergarten is over.

“That’s the saddest thing about it all for me,” she said. “She keeps saying that she wants to go back to preschool and not the zoom class. She always wants to skip it. “

Shipsides also found that all of the increased screen time coupled with social distancing made their sons more prone to emotional breakdowns.

“I couldn’t stand to see George cry out of the blue,” she said. “I had a really hard time with the emotional outbursts.”

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

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

To make matters worse, the dominance Electronic communications and digital media can be among the causes of the increase in mental health problems today. according to the research results published by the American Psychological Association.

During this time of social upheaval as families cope with the stresses of a pandemic and economic crisis, many parents are also concerned about whether this period of extreme screen immersion will affect their children’s academic futures.

I want education officials to see how bad zoom is kindergarten is for kids. I know how concerned the teachers are about the return to the classroom, but I want the education officials to prioritize the return of the young children to personal school. I wish the school districts had worked harder to come up with more creative solutions, like outdoor pods with district teachers and volunteers, ”said Whalen. “I think the toll this is taking on many of these children is enormous.”

Now that the virus is rising across the country and most of California is returning to the most restrictive purple level, distance learning may be the ongoing reality for many students. Some school campuses currently open on a hybrid model may need to return to full-time distance learning, while others face the prospect of a full year of distance learning.

Even after the risk of contagion has decreased, health professionals find that screen time remains an important factor in children’s health and well-being.

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

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

“If we are constantly on our own, distracted and not preoccupied with our children, how can we expect them to behave differently?” Said Gray. “This is the time for parents to think outside the box, put our devices away and actively involve our children.”

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