Hurdles to Well-Being and Digital Boundaries During Remote Crisis Learning

After my middle school zoom lesson ends, I send the students off, saying “Ok explorers, go get some movement in and get off the screens! I’ll see you tomorrow.” The kids linger, and argue that they don’t need to go because they plan to sit at their laptops whether they have zoom open or not. They explain patiently that they will plan to play games or watch videos until their next zoom starts anyway, so why should they leave their friends during that time?

During our zooms, many more cameras are off than their are children uncomfortable with cameras, and I’ve learned to recognize the difference in lag times when I ask a question and kids answer – there is the “I’m using my trackpad to unmute” and the several seconds longer of “I’m doing something else and need to catch up before unmuting.” Then, there is the non-response of “I’ve put you on mute so I can play a game or watch videos. I have received more than one parent email informing me their child puts the lesson on mute in order to watch Youtube or Tiktok.

Parents express worries about how much time their children spend on screens due to virtual instruction, and many schools provide guidelines for teachers to minimize the time students spend on screens. For example, our live zooms cannot be longer than 45 minutes, and then we must leave our zooms open for learning support after allowing students a break. We are encouraged to find ways to reduce required screen time for children.

My experience causes me to suspect that the children I teach are using digital devices for excessive hours of the day, however that this usage is not due to increased demands for on-device time from their teachers. Rather, it is the product of increased access, decreased supervision, and decreased opportunities for movement and activity away from devices.

Prior to remote learning, students had relatively minimal screen time during the school day even when some course work required computer and device usage. Passing time, transitions in class, lunch, recess, school sports, and required PE courses meant that children were active and off of their devices for significant portions of their day. During remote crisis learning, even “off screen” tasks, like writing in student planners, require screen time, and all of the incidental activity opportunities of being in a school building have disappeared.

Based on a 2020 study by Parents Together

My experience is reflected in research. A ParentsTogether survey of 3,000 families found a 500% increase in screen time for children during the pandemic (ParentsTogether, 2020). The apps used are not necessarily educational: “YouTube (78.21%), Netflix (49.64%), and TikTok (33.41%)” (ParentsTogether, 2020). The survey further found that, though 4% of students spent more than 8 hours online before remote learning, now that number is 26% (Parents Together,2020), and 30% of those children are spending at least 4 hours unsupervised (Parents Together, 2020).

The AAP does not suggest a specific limit to digital media for children ages 8-17 as long as it doesn’t interfere with physical activity or sleep, so this behavior does not necessarily raise red flags for children’s health in itself (AAP, 2016). Specifically, the AAP recommends 8-12 hours of sleep, 1 hour of vigorous physical activity per day “media-free times. . .and media-free zones,” saying “children should not sleep with devices in their bedrooms, including TVs, computers, and smartphones” (AAP, 2016).

Though, the increase in digital device use is not the cause of the decrease in movement essential for in-building school attendance, it coincides with it and increased time on these devices prevents the replacement of the activity lost with the cessation of in-building learning with other forms of movement. Further, increased use of devices has an adverse effect on sleep patterns and the need for multiple users to be online live within households has driven devices into children’s bedrooms. It is a trifecta of conditions that discourage healthy limits to device use and encourage a balance of time spent active away from devices and time spent using them in a healthy way.

This is especially problematic because children in the age bracket this blog focuses on were not getting enough activity anyway, in a 2019 study of 1.6 million tweens and teens worldwide, tohe WHO found that “more than 80% of school-going adolescents globally did not meet current recommendations of at least one hour of physical activity per day” (WHO, 2019)

In reporting on their study, the WHO provides the positive news that the United States had one of the three lowest levels of insufficient activity, which they postulize is due to “good physical education in schools, pervasive media coverage of sports, and good availability of sports clubs” (WHO, 2019). Given that two of the three activities listed ceased with the shut down of schools and community activity centers in April 2020, and that they have not been replaced by other options for tweens and teens, it is reasonable to suspect that rates of insufficient activity have increased further in the U.S.

Digital Well-Being Resources

We would benefit from resource that safeguard children’s (and adult’s) digital well being, and establishing healthy guidelines that children can follow with minimal adult assistance.

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