Virtual school is changing the way we think about screen time

In her first full week of fourth grade, she has already cried twice because she had a headache while squinting at the screen.

“It’s painful to watch,” said Barnett, who lives in Pennsylvania.

The headaches, anxiety, and exhaustion caused by endless video meetings are no longer just for adults trying to work from home during the pandemic. Some schools have started the fall semester with remote learning setups that mimic what a full school day looked like before the coronavirus crisis.

In the spring, when much of the world still naively believed things could be back to normal in a few months, experts and parents let go of the guilt about screen time.

But things are different this fall. As more schools have held full-time, real-time online classes, we’re seeing kids reaching their limits with certain types of screen time. Many schools stopped grading students or even taking classes in the chaos last spring, but those formalities are back. Children must log in and often be seen on a camera to be counted as present. There are new rules about what to wear, where they sit and how they can move their bodies. And cameras and microphones are, for many students, not optional.

Experts say not all screen time is the same, and general rules about how many hours to allow don’t work when you add distance schooling. Families can feel powerless to control the screen time that schools dedicate to their children’s days, especially when they need it to do their own work.

It’s still early in the school year and everyone involved in distance learning is figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Reaching out to administrators and teachers early on could shape the future of online learning during a pandemic. And talking to children to see how they feel is also important.

Live or not, screens are central to almost every remote learning setup. As with everything during the pandemic, approaches could change.

“I think where we may have messed up the most in all of this is that we didn’t make it clear early on that parents were getting two things from the school. They get an education and they also get child care. These are both critical and valid needs,” said Alix Gallagher, director of strategic partnerships for policy analysis for education in California, who has advised districts in the state.

Determining new boundaries also depends on what the school requires. As parents and children settled into their new — sometimes screen-heavy — routines over the summer, schools drew up plans for remote learning. Many schools have come under pressure from parents who were desperate for help with childcare or worried that their children would fall behind in school. Edtech companies sold their apps and platforms to superintendents, while education professionals pushed for more research-based solutions.

The result is a jumble of methods that vary wildly between states and individual school districts.

Some children don’t have live lessons at all and only watch videos or use apps to hand in their homework, which can help students unable to log in during regular hours. Others log on for short periods to participate in live classes, lectures, or small group time. Many schools use video conferencing software such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet not just for teaching, but throughout the day to keep students focused on their task and ensure they are on the same move as the school. in person.

Gallagher said schools need to focus on designing days around what gives children meaningful interaction and what meets their social needs. She recommends a mix of lessons that provide information, like a video or lecture, as well as activities to actively engage with the lessons, like writing practice or math problem solving. After that, use a tool like Zoom to discuss what they learned and actually interact with the teacher and other students.

Her son recently started distance school and had to take 70-minute geometry lessons. That duration may be too long for children in person and is likely more difficult with video, where there isn’t the same social pressure and teachers miss key cues to see students, Gallagher said.

Margaret Lorentzen, a high school science teacher, noticed all the little differences with video communication that make teaching more difficult, such as the lag that can occur when a teacher speaks, missed visual cues, and the feeling of talking to students. people in a group chat. .

She taught remotely in the spring and just had her first day of classes again this week in Seattle. That’s 20-30 minutes of Zoom time for every 80-minute class, with up to 33 students not having to turn on their camera unless they choose to. Used to walking around a classroom and assigning lab experiments, Lorentzen is adjusting to the physical constraints of online learning, but is happy to have a way to see her students again.

“The best thing about today was actually seeing some students, and I think for a lot of them, they’re so starved for any kind of interaction outside of their families that they turn on their cameras,” Lorentzen said.

She said teachers should try to understand what their students are up against, including why they may want to turn off the cameras or why they can’t do live lessons, and work with them.

Online learning also presents unique challenges, as students learn to navigate new school rules — and even share WiFi issues.

When Sarah Perez’s first-grade son turned off his camera to run to the bathroom during a Zoom lesson recently, his teacher kicked him out of class. Perez was in a meeting in another room, but his eldest daughter was nearby and could hear the professor warning her to turn it back on. Her three children were also barred from classes after their home Wi-Fi network, which the whole family shares, went down. None of her children like being filmed, especially her youngest daughter, who is in middle school.

“I feel like there’s no recognition of these kids as people, we just moved the over-policing from the schools into our homes,” Perez said.

A teacher in Dallas, Perez is trying to be more flexible with her own students, who are in kindergarten and may be logging on for the first time. She sees a contrast between the school where she primarily teaches low-income students and the better-funded district where her children attend. Caregivers of his students say they are concerned about their health, safety and access to food, while parents at his children’s school have pushed harder for face-to-face learning.

Not all screen time is created equal, experts say, and some types are better than others. Anything that promotes child socialization, such as FaceTime with friends or video conferencing with the teacher, can be beneficial. Activities that kids feel engaged in are better than something completely passive, like watching YouTube, or even something interactive, like playing video games.

But adding hours of video conferencing up to six hours a day can change the math, education experts say.

“Real classrooms involve all kinds of interactions, with the teacher and between students, so that’s what teachers find so hard to replicate online,” said Sonia Livingstone, professor of political science at the London School of Economics and author of “Parenting for a digital future.”

She recommends that teachers break up the format of their teaching throughout the day. For their part, parents need to be tolerant if their child gets restless and needs to move, and try to balance their school and screen time with face-to-face interactions and physical activities.

Experts advise talking to your kids to make sure they’re okay and making all decisions about screen time with them. If video games help them relax after a day of video chatting, it might be good to keep them for their sanity.

Regardless of their schedule, screens are a staple of remote learning for millions of students this semester. Video conferencing, when used to interact with students, can be a healthy social activity for children isolated at home, experts say. But tasks that simply involve listening and watching may be less useful if done too much to fill a school day.

“It’s not just about screens, it’s about what happens on those screens,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an advocacy group.

His organization called on schools to limit the screen time they ask of students and do more of the kind of distance learning that experts say is better for students. That means small groups, shorter interactive lessons with teachers over video, and project-based learning that kids can continue without a computer.

The group especially wants schools to be careful about using ed-tech apps, which it says can outsource some things usually handled by teachers to algorithms. His biggest concern is that the changes taking place, such as the shift from in-person interaction to learning on screens and through apps, could be permanent.

“There are no big solutions right now, and that’s a real shame. The people who argue the most, parents and teachers, it’s not their fault. This is a virus that has been mishandled by our country,” Golin said.

For parents like Barnett and Perez, seeing their kids unhappy is the hardest part. Barnett said she wanted her school to offer pre-recorded options so her daughter could learn at her own pace. Perez has already spoken to school administrators about relaxing the rules.

“There’s a lot going on and we need to calm down and let things happen instead of overwatching this whole situation and stressing out these young little lives,” Perez said. “There is a way to be calm and offer grace, teachers to students and parents to teachers – all around. Let’s just take a deep breath.

Perry A. Thomasson