Healthy screen time is one challenge of distance learning

But it’s not the only one experts wrestle with as more students are asked to learn online

Screen time for classwork isn’t bad, experts say. Sometimes it can provide flexibility in your schedule. But, they add, your time online should never get in the way of exercise and sleep time.

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Tyson Terry wakes up, gets ready for school, then opens his laptop. It’s his first day of seventh grade at a school in Florida. But he’s not going anywhere. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it unsafe for him and many other students around the world to gather in person for classes. Perhaps you are one of them.

a photo of Tyson Terry at his desk attending virtual class
Tyson Terry spent his first day of seventh grade online in a virtual classroom. When the pandemic started, he didn’t like distance learning because he didn’t get to see anyone in person. But over time, “it started getting more and more fun,” he says. Nicole Patton-Terry

For many students today, distance learning has become the new normal. Their classes happen on virtual-meeting platforms, such as Zoom or Google Classroom. “All you have to do is get in Zoom, and when that Zoom’s over, get into the next Zoom,” says Tyson. Distance learning means lots of screen time.

Kids are also stuck at home during their free time. YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Netflix, TV and video games offer easy ways to pass time. Tyson’s sister Nia is in high school. She’s been spending a lot more time on her phone since the pandemic started. “It’s hard to do anything without it,” she says. “I don’t have anything else to do.”

A recent study shows that Tyson and Nia aren’t the only young people getting plenty of screen time these days. In April 2020, almost 1,500 parents in Canada reported their kids’ physical activity, screen time and sleep habits since the new coronavirus pandemic hit. The Canadian 24 Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth recommend just two hours of screen time per day (school work doesn’t count toward this total), plus at least 60 minutes of exercise for kids and teens ages 5 to 17. Sleep recommendations vary based on age. A study looking at the results of this survey found that only around 2.5 percent of kids met all three guidelines. Nearly nine in every 10 exceeded the recommended two-hour daily limit on non-school screen time.

Screen time guidelines exist for a good reason. Research has shown that kids who spend a lot of time on screens are more likely to have eye problems, weight problems and trouble with reading and language. They also are more likely to show a wide range of other physical and mental health issues. Yet right now, screens are the only safe way for many young people to learn or socialize. How should kids and teens like Nia and Tyson navigate this dilemma?

a photo of Nia Terry attending virtual class at her desk
Nia Terry started her sophomore year of high school at home with distance learning. She doesn’t mind having classes this way. “You can do it at your own pace, which makes it easier,” she says. Nicole Patton-Terry

“I think to say screen time is bad is dangerous,” says Michelle Guerrero. She’s an author of the study, which was published in July. But, she adds, “I think to say it’s good is also dangerous.” Guerrero is an epidemiologist, someone who studies patterns of diseases. She works at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute in Canada. Different types of screen time have both costs and benefits, she says. You should be mindful of how much screen time you get, she says. But for many families, “right now, during the pandemic … staying within two hours is just not realistic.”

Taren Sanders agrees. He’s a health scientist at Australian Catholic University in North Sydney. “Overall, I’m not too concerned about the additional screen time kids are having,” he says. The things you should worry about: The amount of exercise you get and the way you spend your free time. Another big concern for many families is getting reliable access to computers and the internet so that students can participate in school from home.

Get up and go outside

The biggest problem with screens is that people usually sit still while as they watch or interact with them. “If [students] are spending all day sitting on screens, when are they moving?” asks Guerrero. Extended time sitting and not moving around leads to changes in the body’s metabolism. These changes make obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other health issues more likely. It’s something doctors refer to as metabolic syndrome. So an important question to ask yourself is not how much screen time are you getting, but how active are you?

Lin Yang has studied how long people spend sitting. She’s a public-health expert at Alberta Health Services in Calgary, Canada. Americans sat one hour more every day in 2016 compared to 2001, she found. “What is this hour taken from? That’s the scary part,” says Yang. It could be reduced sleep time or reduced active time. And already, most Americans don’t get recommended amounts of either.

During the pandemic, getting enough physical activity may be even more difficult than usual. People who are working or learning from home no longer move around a large school or office building. Also, many sports and other group activities that bring people into close contact aren’t safe. Tyson Terry used to play soccer, tag football and basketball on teams. Now he only plays basketball in the driveway with his family.

a photo of two women running on a track wearing face masks
Get plenty of exercise on school days, even work up a sweat. And do some of it outdoors when possible, even if it means wearing a mask (or at least bringing one along).zoranm/E+/Getty Images

Getting in at least one daily work out is great, but you should still get up and move around regularly throughout the day — even if it’s just to get a drink of water or play with a pet. Yang recommends getting up at least once an hour. And, she adds, “get outdoors” for some of those breaks (as long as it’s safe to do so in your area).  

Going outside is good for more than just your metabolism. Your eyes will thank you, too. Problems with myopia (when distant objects look blurry) have been linked to screen time. But Yang suspects screens may not be the real problem. Research has shown that spending too much time indoors may be to blame.

When you only look at things close-up, your eyes don’t get practice focusing on distant objects. Eye experts recommend looking away from a screen every 20 minutes to something at least 6 meters (20 feet) away. If you can’t get outside that often, looking out a window regularly should help. Brighter light levels outdoors may play a role, too.

All screen time is not equal

Also ask yourself what you are doing on your computers, smartphones or other screens. A teen who FaceTimes with her grandparents or does homework online for an hour is having a very different experience than someone who sits alone and watches an action movie or plays Fortnite for that hour.

In one 2019 study, Sanders looked at how kids spent their screen time. His group then investigated whether the type of screen time made a difference in mental or physical health or in school achievements. The researchers sorted screen time into five types: passive (such as watching a movie), interactive (such as playing a video game), social (such as texting or FaceTiming), educational (such as a virtual class) or something else.

Educational screen time was linked to doing better in school and had no bad health effects. More passive screen time was linked to worse outcomes in health and school achievement, the researchers found, compared with the other categories. But the impact was “quite small,” Sanders adds. Problems showed up mainly in kids spending more than eight hours a day on screens.

a photo of the back of the head of a girl watching TV with a bowl of popcorn
It’s especially important to avoid screens at night. Exciting video games or movies or social media exchanges make it difficult to wind down. Also, the blue light that screens emit can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. Sanders recommends putting away screens for an hour before bedtime.manaemedia/iStock/Getty Images Plus

This research took place before the pandemic and the rise in distance learning. But educational, social and interactive screen time, he believes, is likely still better for you than watching videos, shows or movies.

The American Academy of Pediatrics changed its screen-time guidelines in 2015. This group had previously recommended two hours or less per day. Now, there isn’t a set limit. Instead, the Academy recommends making sure that screen time does not substitute for any sleep or active time. The group also encourages that kids spend screen time with others, not alone. And certain times of the day, such as meals and bedtime, should be media-free. The guidelines also ask parents to put away their own screens while spending time with their kids.

‘No student should be left offline’

It’s one thing to worry about screen time when you have your own computer or phone. But for many students, the real worry is how they are going to participate in virtual classes. Almost one in every five U.S. students doesn’t have reliable access to a computer at home, the Pew Research Center finds. (Pew is a non-partisan research group that performs data-driven research.) A similar share doesn’t have access to high-speed internet, Pew finds. And that makes reliable access to Zoom and other online meetings impossible.

Khalid Patton teaches 4th and 5th grade social studies in Atlanta, Ga. The school he works at serves many low-income families. When that school switched to distance learning this past March, he remembers thinking, “I don’t know how many [students] are going to be able to pull this off.” He started with 19 students in his class. By the end of the year, only about half showed up regularly.

Patton’s school was among those able to offer laptops and internet hot spots to families that needed them. But not all schools have been able to do this. Some students have had to miss classroom time when their family couldn’t get a device or couldn’t afford to pay for internet.

“Nationwide, across all racial and ethnic groups, 16.9 million children remain logged out from instruction,” concluded a report released earlier this year. These children’s families lack the computer or internet access at home needed to make online learning possible. “They fall into a homework gap that is turning into a larger education gap during this crisis,” says Jessica Rosenworcel. She’s a commissioner with the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C. She is working toward a national program that will support internet access for students at all U.S. schools. “No student should be left offline,” she says.

Looking on the bright side

When the pandemic hit, students, teachers and parents had very little time to prepare for distance learning. “We were like chickens running around with our heads cut off,” says Patton. But over time, everyone has adjusted as well as they can.

In some ways, distance learning has been a good change. Nia Terry enjoys setting her own schedules. She hasn’t had to start working overly early in the day. She also says she’s been able to move around lots in her virtual school. In the past, if she wanted to stand up in her physical classroom, she had to first ask permission. But at home she can “pace around,” she says, which helps her think.

Sanders has done research that shows that college students tend to learn better when they have access to videos of lectures. This may be because they can pause or go back and listen to the hard parts over and over. Now that many classes are being recorded, students of all ages may have this advantage.

Aisha Bonner is a school leader at KIPP SoCal Public Schools in southern California. In classrooms, she says, teachers and students sometimes feel pressured to be working all the time. Students may not always be able to experiment with different ways of learning. At home, many kids have more freedom to lie on the floor, pace around, move to another room or take breaks as needed. Also, she notes, teachers and students and families have had more one-on-one conversations as they struggle to figure out the new normal.

“We’re closer” as a community, Bonner says. She hopes everyone will take the positives from distance learning with them when they go back to in-person classes.  

Kathryn Hulick is a freelance science writer and the author of Strange But True: 10 of the World's Greatest Mysteries Explained, a book about the science of ghosts, aliens and more. She loves hiking, gardening and robots.

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