Managing screen time in our kids is difficult at the best of times. As a Psychologist I am particularly cautious because I know that screen time changes the way a developing brain is formed. That may sounds scary, but that is because it is scary. We know that any screen time before the age of three years impacts on children’s language development and social skills. The ability to focus, to concentrate, to lend attention, to sense other people’s attitudes and communicate with them, to build a large vocabulary—all those abilities are harmed. Too much screen time can also affect older children’s development – for example, it can affect their ability to have conversations, maintain eye contact, pay attention in school or read body language.
We also know that the fast paced visual stimulation of TV, video games, social media etc is overloading our children's brains. The child’s brain is in super-fast, super-busy mode, processing all that visual stimuli. The brain is stressed by the magnitude of information. Regular and prolonged screen time trains the brain to be hypervigilant, to be forever looking for more stimulation, making concentrating on one thing difficult. Ever noticed how a child with ADHD can't sit still, is constantly looking around, can't concentrate, but as soon as you put them on a video came, they are super focused? That is because there is so much visual information coming in, stimulating that one area of the brain, that it takes all their energy to follow what is happening.
So when our kids are processing all this visual information the brain is still in super-fast, “hyper” mode. Until it readjusts to real life and a normal pace (which takes time), your child will be bouncing off the walls in an unconscious attempt to find stimuli moving at the artificially fast pace of his brain. Not exactly what we want during home-schooling and "lockdown". Then to top it off I haven't even gone into how blue light from screens affects our ability to sleep. We all know what it is like when our kids haven't had enough sleep.
So what do we do when we have been placed in a situation where we are now having to home school our kids and most of their education is coming virtually and on screens?
Are all screens bad?
Well, in general I would say yes, but some are worse than others. As a rule we should be limiting screen time where we can but there is a big difference between reading a book on a kindle (especially with the blue light turned off) and playing a fast paced video game. I would normally stay away from screens for learning, but now is not a normal situation. While we are in "lockdown" and children are not able to attend school, the benefit of online learning definitely outweighs the negative. Children are able to interact with their teachers, ask questions, see and hear their friends. It is vital that in this time of isolation that we give our children a sense of community and a feeling of being connected. Screens are the easiest way to do this.
How do we Home school with screens?
While I'm saying that we do need to use technology in this current climate to help educate our children, that doesn't mean that they should be on the computer or ipad for 6 hours of schooling. Research also shows that writing by hand improves memory and activates the learning regions of our brains. Writing is far superior for learning than typing on a keyboard.
So my opinion is that we need a balance. Yes our children will need to check in with their teachers everyday. They may need to spend some time going over the activities, they may even play educational "video games", that's okay. But don't make it the only way they learn. Most schools are giving the option of online or paper workbooks. Even if you get all the class work online, I would encourage you to print some of it out. They will benefit from writing the work out by hand and by reading on paper over a screen.
Yes during this time of isolation, their screen time will increase, but it doesn't mean that we should just open the floodgates. Talk to your child's teacher about wanting to balance both online and paper based learning. If they need to see what your child has completed, then you could scan the work or take photos and email it to them.
How do we counteract the increased screen time?
When you end your child’s screen time, don’t just let them chill out. Because they WON’T be chilling out. They will be jumping out of their skin. And I strongly suggest that you don't let them go on more screens after being on school screens, you are only giving them more stimulation.
To reset the pace of their body and brain, use the vestibular system, the system that controls balance and the perception of where your body is in space. Get your child moving. Jump, swing, run around. They will probably be desperate for some movement during this isolation period anyway. If you have one, jump on a trampoline, swing, run, kick a ball, whatever you have access to. This will reset their system and calm the entire body.
Make sure you are allowing for movement breaks throughout the "school" day. They will learn better if they are able to move, calm and concentrate. Try and make a movement break after each screen time, even if it is a quick run around, to help them transition to their paper and pencil work.
This is not "normal"
But in the end, these are not easy times. Nothing is normal. So while I'm aware that the impact that screen time has on our kids, I am also aware of our need to get through this difficult time. Increases in screen time will be okay, but we just need to be aware of the impact so that we can make a decision. If your kids are feeling isolated and they need to facetime friends or family, then do it. It is much better for their mental health to still feel that they have friends. If everyone has had enough and the only way that you can get a break is to let them watch TV or play video games, then do it. It is much better for them and you, if you can have some space and remain calm. But if we are aware we can try and counteract the impact and bring some balance.