With many of the state’s largest school districts remote or hybrid, students - including young elementary schoolers - are expected to be online for hours at a time. NHPR asked parents and teachers how they’re managing this increase in screen time.
People sent us stories of creativity, frustration and profound anxiety. Some parents were so concerned about screen time and "Zoom fatigue" that they had opted to homeschool or enrolled in a private school with in-person learning. Here’s a sample of what we heard, and some best practices from local experts on how to manage screen time more effectively.
'Kids are Begging Us to Give Them More Screen Time'
Abby Asciola, of Gilford, teaches school in-person, but her three kids attend a school in a hybrid model, so they are home alone three days a week.
“This extensive time home alone has created a great deal of tension between us (the parents) and our children. We come home exhausted from working all day only to be faced with messes, arguments, and incomplete school work. Meanwhile, our kids are begging us to give them more ‘fun screen time’ because they are bored and have nothing to do (we restrict video games and social media to 3 hours a day - which we think is a lot despite our children's complaints).
Our fridge is covered with charts that organize each child's obligations for the day. If the obligations aren't met, then the child does not get their ‘fun screen time’ for the remainder of the evening.”
Debbie Brenner lives in Concord, where schools began the year remote, before switching to an optional hybrid system in October. She writes:
“My kids changed from a half hour of iPad fun time to a regimented 6-hour day via Zoom. It is not developmentally appropriate nor healthy for brain development.”
Michelle Ruby lives in Nashua but teaches highschool in Groton, Mass. Her frustrations echo some of what we’ve heard from teachers in New Hampshire, who are using technology to teach students in the classroom and at home simultaneously.
“I now have to project my laptop to a 65" screen at the front of the classroom and open up a ‘Teams meeting’ for remote students (long-term remote or remote for the day) to attend. Everything has to be shared virtually. Hands-on labs and field experiences are not allowed, because remote students must have the same experience as in-person students...Hands-on and field work were the best parts of teaching and learning science. I've been using lots of toggling between full-class instruction and discussions and smaller group work with focused tasks, and using interactive online simulations as much as possible.”
Cynthia Wilson, of Brentwood, is overseeing her granddaughter’s remote learning while her daughter goes to work. She writes:
“I’m very concerned that this highly motivated all-A student is withering in her love for learning...It seems that SAU 16 expects these poor kids to sit for six hours as if they are in school. She has to endure hours of sitting for the sake of counting down required hours. Much of the time is spent with teachers struggling with technology and students who have a lack of quality internet. There is very little learning taking place. Many times I find her under her desk - camera off playing with the puppy while the teacher drones on. Online learning should not look like this!”
Alyssa Dillon lives in Nashua, which has begun moving some students from fully remote to hybrid. She writes:
"My husband is a retired police officer so he is the primary care giver for our kids. He spends so much time with our first grader, helping him get into the right Zoom at the right time, and helping him with daily assignments, that our 3-year old gets upset that he isn’t getting the attention he needs."
Adjusting Expectations, the 'Extinction Burst,' and Modeling Good Behavior
A lot of parents told us they worry that screen time is making learning less meaningful and paving the way for unhealthy habits. But pediatricians and advocates say there are a lot of strategies to manage screen use during the pandemic.
The first suggestion: Stop freaking out.
“No matter what we want to do, kids are going to be spending more time on the screens right now, whether it’s because all their school work is on screens or because it’s the only chance they have to socialize and be with peers,” says Dr. Nina Sand-Loud, a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock.
Before the pandemic, pediatricians recommended limiting screen time for 3-5 year olds to two hours, but Sand-Loud says this may have to increase temporarily. If you’re trying to limit young children’s screen time when they’re not doing online school, Sand-Loud says get ready to deal with an “extinction burst,” basically, a burst of bad behavior when something kids like is about to end.
“If we stick with it, they learn the boundary, and it’s helpful for them,” Sand-Loud explains.
She says with older kids, parents should watch for normal markers of well-being: exercise, engagement with peers and school, healthy eating, good sleep habits. It’s fine for teenagers to spend a few hours of FaceTime or talking on the phone with friends per day, but if they’re playing video games through the night and then logging onto Zoom classes for six hours, you need to set some limits.
Sand-Loud also says parents shouldn’t expect their kids to exercise good self-control unless parents model good behavior. If no phones are allowed at the dinner table or in the bedroom, that should go for adults too.
Don't Shun Kids for Screen Use; Talk to Them About It
Heather Inyart, Executive Director of the Manchester-based non-profit Media Power Youth, says teachers and parents should encourage screen-time that actively engages kids and requires interaction, rather than asking them to passively consume.
“Not all screen time is created equal,” she says. “Thinking about it more as a puzzle or a portfolio where we have different types of screen time is more helpful than talking about being on screens or off screens.”
She says teachers are getting creative to keep students from zoning out of virtual classes. One teacher puts a Post-it note on herself whenever a student puts a comment in the group chat. By the end of the class, she’s covered in Post-it notes - but students get a laugh, and they know their teacher is listening to them.
While some habits during virtual classroom are shaped by teachers, parents can help kids better manage overall screen time, Inyart says. Here are a few suggestions:
- Have regular discussions with kids about media, technology, and their relationship to screens. “Being curious about what they like and why they like those platforms is an important first step, because by asking those questions, you’re helping your kid be more critical about the media they’re using,” Inyart says. If your kids like online games, play with them so you can learn about what they’re doing on the screen.
- Turn off notifications for apps that aren’t totally necessary, and educate your kids about how notifications are designed to light up the reward center of their brain so they don’t have as much control over how they engage with technology. The more they know about how screens can control them, the more they may want to improve their habits, Inyart says.
- If you’re home with kids after a day of online learning, institute a ritual that creates a separation between school and home. This could include creating a designated space where laptops get shut down and put away, or encouraging kids to go for a 10 minute walk to mark the end of the school day.
- If you want to cut back on recreational screen time to compensate for all the extra time online for school, look for other activities to replace them. “It’s always easier to create a new habit than take something away,” Inyart says. This could be a craft, music, or hanging out with a pet. Social time with friends - in person or via screen - is important and shouldn’t be limited.
The N.H. DOE recently released a guide with resources for how navigate digital tools, screen time, and technology: 'Parent and Family Digital Learning Guide'