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Christine Whalen has a spirited 5-year-old who started kindergarten in the fall. It’s not going well. Ella gets so bored on Zoom that she quickly squirms, wiggles and tries to flee.
One day when Whalen left the room for a moment, she came back to find her little girl lying on the ground, sticking her leg so high in the air that all the teacher could see was her tiny foot. Another day, Ella snuck out of the room entirely, leaving a Cookie Monster stuffed animal in 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’s not all. Her bigger concern is one shared by many parents and medical professionals across California and the nation: All this enforced screen time is not developmentally appropriate for young children.
“I know the schools have a mandate to teach a certain number of hours, but I think that is at the expense of the kids’ learning and, more importantly, their love of learning,” said Whalen, an attorney struggling to get her own work done from her Oakland home while cajoling 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 difficult to enforce, because I don’t think it’s right. I know it’s bad for her brain. It’s really depressing. Like all parents, I want to do the right thing for my child.”
Family life has been disrupted in innumerable ways during the Covid pandemic. Among them is the nature of our relationship to screens. After years of being warned by 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 being forced to ride herd on children for long days of Zoom school and online homework.
The strain of remote learning has exacerbated parental worries over a core question: How much screen time is too much for small children?
Experts say too much screen time may have alarming effects on developing brains. A landmark National Institutes of Health study of 10,000 children that began in 2018 found that 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 also experienced thinning of the brain’s cortex, the area related to critical thinking and reasoning.
Many parents also worry that their children will start foregoing physical and social activities for digital pursuits. Some also fear that too much screen time may suck the joy out of the educational experience.
“Many children live on their screens. In a majority of homes, the pandemic has only added to that. Add in that children doing remote or hybrid models at school may be doing a lot of screen hours per day,” said Richard Bromfield, a professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. “Throw in cabin fever and what are children and parents to do? It’s easy to get into never-ending control battles around your children’s screens.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children younger than 18 months avoid use of screens.
For children ages 2 to 5 years, they suggest limiting screen use to one hour per day of high-quality programs. For children ages 6 and older, they advise “consistent limits.”
But for many parents, setting limits in a media-saturated and virus-laden environment is all but impossible. Remote learning can require up to four hours of live instruction a day and that does not include the time required to do homework that must be completed on a computer.
Many children also log a lot of recreational time on screens. Children ages 8-12 in the United States spend four to six hours a day watching or using screens on average, and teens spend up to nine hours, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Some experts counter that given the myriad pressures families are under right now, excessive screen time should no longer be a major concern. Parents should be cutting themselves more slack, they say.
“We are living through a massive cultural shock. Families have enough stress to deal with, and counting screen minutes should be very low on the list of concerns for any of us,” said Michael Robb, senior director of research for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group that reviews media content for children.
Yet, for some parents, the pandemic has deepened misgivings 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 instance. But it was during distance learning in the spring in Fremont Unified that she was horrified to realize that screen time had started to dominate family life.
“Being glued to the screen for school made them more into other screens,” said Shipsides, who recently moved her family from the Bay Area to Minnesota largely to be able to send the boys to in-person school. “George is now so addicted to TV that he sets his alarm to wake up to watch it. They may have a tendency for screens already, but I think Zoom school accentuated it. I also think the kids are less healthy because of Zoom. They are less inclined to do anything physical. The kids have less stamina and they seem less able to focus.”
Whalen’s greatest fear is that little Ella will start to hate school just when she should be discovering a love of learning. She fears that Ella’s boredom with Zoom will mar her appreciation of school long after kindergarten is over.
“That’s the saddest thing about all of this for me,” she said. “She keeps saying she wants to go back to preschool, and she doesn’t want to go to Zoom class. She always wants to skip it.”
Shipsides has also noted that all the increased screen time, coupled with social distancing, has made her sons more prone to emotional meltdowns.
“I couldn’t bear to watch George cry out of the blue anymore,” she said. “I was having a really hard time with the emotional outbursts.”
Developmental experts agree that increased screen time can lead to greater emotional vulnerability in children.
“As kids spend more time online, I would caution parents to watch for signs of anxiety, depression, stress and sadness as children deal differently with social isolation,” said Casey Gray, a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente Fresno.
To make matters worse, the dominance of electronic communication and digital media may be among the causes of the rise in mental health issues today, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.
During this period of social upheaval, with families coping with stress of living through a pandemic and an economic crisis, many parents are also anxious about whether this period of extreme immersion in screen time will impact their children’s academic future.
“I want education officials to realize how bad Zoom Kindergarten is for kids. I know how worried teachers are about a return to the classroom, but I want education officials to prioritize young children’s return to in-person school. I wish the school districts had worked harder to come up with more creative solutions, such as outdoor pods with district teachers and aides,” Whalen said. “I think the toll this is taking on a lot of these kids is huge.”
Now, as the virus surges across the country and most of California returns to the most restrictive purple tier, remote learning may be the ongoing reality for many students. Some school campuses that are currently open under a hybrid model may have to return to full-time distance learning and others are facing the prospect of a full year of remote learning.
Even after the threat of contagion has diminished, health experts note that screen time will remain an important factor in children’s health and well-being.
“It is important to have rules around electronic device usage, when and where devices should be kept,” Gray said. “In the past, I have encouraged parents not to have any electronic devices in children’s bedrooms.’’
Children also learn by imitating their elders and experts say parents need to model the behavior they want to see.
“If we are constantly on our own devices, distracted and not engaged directly with our children, how can we expect them to behave differently?” Gray said. “This is the time for parents to think outside the box, to put our devices away and to actively engage our children.”
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