At every pediatrician appointment for the last several years, I’ve been asked about how much “screen time” my kids are getting. I’m reminded by the doctor that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends children younger than two avoid digital media other than video chatting. And for children ages 2 to 5, the limit is supposed to be one hour of high-quality children’s programming per day.
It wasn’t just pediatricians sounding the alarm on the dangers of screen time. Every child expert for the last decade has warned about the dangers of too much: in young kids its impact on brain development, fine and gross motor skills; and for everyone its linkage to obesity and short attention spans. A growing kids podcast industry has sprouted trying to offer parents screen-free alternatives, and one of the most popular topics of conversation in parenting groups is weaning kids off of screens.
Those days of warning about screen time are gone.
Over the summer, the AAP released its recommendations for the coming school year and unequivocally pushed for “[the] goal of having students physically present in school.” And yet, despite their lengthy recommendations on the importance of reopening schools and details regarding how to do so safely, there wasn’t a single mention of how detrimental all-day online learning would be for children, especially those in elementary school.
The importance of in-person learning, yes. The detriments of distancing learning, no.
In countless homeschooling Facebook groups I’m a member of, we see new arrivals asking for guidance on where to begin homeschooling. These exasperated parents explain they are pulling the plug on distance learning because their kids simply can’t handle it. Friends post pictures of their children curled in a ball facing away from the desk after several hours, others describe screaming, sobbing and outbursts after children as young as five are left feeling fried after being expected to stay engaged six hours a day online.
What benefit is there to keeping kids tied to these screens all day, every day? How much learning is even happening? My friend Mary explained that she chose homeschool instead of distance learning this year because she didn’t want to be a “Zoom butler.”
Another friend described all of the “impossible” technical expectations of her daughter’s teachers for students who have never used PowerPoint or even manipulated a mouse, and explained, “This requires full caregiver engagement.”
Rory Cooper, a father in Virginia tweeted this week, “I just got a brisk two-line email from my kid’s Kindergarten teacher informing us that our 5 [year old] isn’t participating in ‘virtual class’ and I’m fuming. He didn’t draw a monster. This is day 6. Note: they asked parents to not participate and let kids be independent. Nevertheless we are *very* much involved. BUT HE’S 5.”
Responding to a viral TikTok video showing a teacher spend five minutes trying to show a student how to unmute his mic, Noah Rothman, a father in New Jersey tweeted “On the other end [of the screen] are around 20+ children who are being told to click the chat box, fill out the form, submit the form, and click the mute button when done to tell the teacher they’re all set, but who cannot read yet so needs you to do it all for them.”
For older kids it’s also exhausting, but as teenagers do, they find a way around being glued to Zoom all day. The father of one teen told me most of the class time is spent trying to make sure everyone is paying attention. Another caretaker for kids distance learning told me about how students in local classes have figured out how to take a screenshot of themselves looking engaged and set that as their photo, set their computers to be muted, and then go watch television in another room.
Naomi Shafer Riley, resident fellow at AEI and the author of Be the Parent Please, a book with tough love for parents struggling with how to handle screen time told me, “Watching a young child on a screen for several hours at a time is like witnessing the life being sapped out of them. I don’t mean to exaggerate but we know that excessive screen time is correlated with higher rates of obesity, shorter attention spans, and a decreased ability to read emotional cues from other people.”
Meghan Cox Gurdon, the author of a landmark book, “The Enchanted Hour,” on the power of reading out loud in our distracted world told me, “What kids are getting from Zoom sessions tends to be so thin, so stretched from connection and feeling. It’s not a knock against teachers, it’s the medium, it’s just not good enough, not human enough.”
Gurdon recommends parents spend an hour a day reading to their children instead. She explains, “The brilliant thing with books — with poetry and nonfiction and storybooks and goofy picture books and classic novels and books at every level — is that you have curated language that is much broader than anything a teacher will say over Zoom or that you and your children may say to each other in the course of daily life.”
The answer to fixing education this year isn’t just reading out loud, but it is surprising how much even an older child can gain from the practice.
What’s clear is that distance-learning isn’t just a waste of time, it is actually doing harm to children. And worst of all, it is those we have entrusted with their safety that are putting it in jeopardy.
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