‘Our brains weren’t really designed to work that way’: How online learning harms children’s well-being and what parents can do to help

As children in Ontario prepare to return to school next week, parents and experts worry about the effects remote learning has had over the past 18 months and what a future return to online learning could mean for the welfare of children.

“Our brains weren’t really designed to work that way, to learn things through two-dimensional screens for hours on end,” said Marjorie Robb, a psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa.

Online learning can shorten kids’ attention spans, promote multitasking (which our brains aren’t designed to do), and create challenges with self-regulation, Robb said.

But the biggest challenge with virtual learning is less about what it is and more about what it isn’t: that is, a dynamic environment in which children can build and navigate relationships, learn through their five senses, and engage in activities. extracurriculars.

Andrea Moffat says her six-year-old son, Justice, has had a hard time navigating school on a screen and she worries he’s missing out on the social skills that come from being in a physical environment, like learning how to resolve conflicts.

With virtual learning, a teacher can’t quietly pull a student aside to ask what’s wrong, so checking often means pointing it out in front of the class, something that can be particularly challenging for little ones, Moffat said. She gave an example of this happening when Justice was not participating in virtual gym class and his teacher called him.

“For some children, the way the camera focuses on them, that singling out can be a lot, especially for young children,” he said. He is only six years old.

“The skills of dealing with a group of people in two dimensions on a screen are not the same as those you develop from being with real people in real time,” Robb said. Particularly for younger children who have spent most of their lives online, there may be a “deficit” in social skills such as reading body language and learning the “give and take” of interpersonal relationships.

While experts say some tech-savvy students who experience social pressure at school may prefer virtual learning, it is largely harming children’s mental health.

In July, researchers at Sick Kids Hospital surveyed more than 2,200 school-age children (ages 6 to 18) and found that the more time students spent learning online, the more symptoms of depression and anxiety they experienced.

As much as teachers try to make virtual school engaging, kids are missing out on the positive experiences that come from being there in person, said Catherine Birken, a pediatrician at Sick Kids and an author of the study.

“Schools are not just places to learn, they are also places for social and emotional development,” he said. “When you take that away from kids, you’re leaving families without a lot of options.”

On the first day after winter, Moffat said Justice was looking forward to telling his friends about his Christmas and showing them his cats, but “the online environment doesn’t allow that.”

For Brampton dad Jagdeep Mann, it’s not just about the extra screen time during school hours, but also the challenge of getting his kids away from screens during breaks and after school, when they would normally be running during recess or practicing with their sports teams. . Her son Himmit, 12, plays basketball, and her daughters Harsun, nine, and Dharus, seven, enjoy gymnastics, soccer and swimming.

Jagdeep Mann said her children would come home "bubbly and happy" when they returned to school in person in the fall.

“As parents, we’re already trying to keep our kids off the screen in normal times,” Mann said. He and his wife work full time, so they can’t take their children out to play during lunch or between classes.

The Sick Kids study also found that spending more time in front of screens outside of school (watching TV, surfing the Internet and playing video games) was associated with more irritability, hyperactivity, inattention, depression and anxiety among young people.

“When you take away all other activities and opportunities from children, then you’ll see, as we’ve seen, screen time will just explode,” Birken said.

Since returning to in-person school this fall, Mann said her children have come home “bubbly and happy.” It’s a marked difference from last year, when months of online learning left them exhausted.

“They just weren’t having fun,” he said. “For kids that age, school is fun. They go there to interact with their friends. When you don’t have fun during the day, it affects your mood. It affects the kind of daily spirit you have, the enthusiasm.”

Robb says scheduling regular breaks, spending time outside, exercising and socializing — even if it’s just with household members — can help mitigate the mental health effects of online school.

Birken recommends that parents try to encourage more interactive screen time (such as online workouts) and develop screen-free times, such as during meals and before bed.

However, he said it is “problematic” to focus mitigation strategies on working parents in a pandemic, and decision-makers should have a responsibility to make sports and recreation accessible to children when the schools are closed.

Lex Harvey is a Toronto-based Star newsletter producer and author of the First Up newsletter. Follow her on Twitter: @lexharvs

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