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Growing up on screens: How a year lived online has changed our children

Thriving, falling behind, bored and burned out, families say a year of nonstop screen time hasn’t been what they expected

Iris Lowenberg-Lin, a nurse practitioner at San Francisco General Hospital, helps her son Eliott, 6, with his homework while his 9-year old brother, Isaiah, takes a virtual piano class and sister Daphne starts to cry. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

SAN FRANCISCO — Like many parents just trying to get to the other side of a pandemic in one piece, Iris Lowenberg-Lin doesn’t have the bandwidth to micromanage screen time for her two older kids. She and her husband are essential medical workers in the Bay Area — she’s a nurse practitioner and he’s an emergency room doctor — and 18 months ago, they welcomed their “surprise” third child. By giving up some, but not all, control, they’ve been able to see firsthand the good and bad of letting kids lead the way with their own technology usage.

Her 6-year-old middle child adapted quickly. He successfully learned how to read during first grade, even though most of his classes have been on Zoom. He’s keeping in touch with friends over FaceTime and the video game Roblox, taking drum lessons online, watching some shows he likes, and still going outside for bike rides and to play near their home.

The adjustment has been harder for her third-grader, who misses his friends. When he started getting more migraines in the fall, she realized his similar online diet was having a physical impact on him. He’s still allowed to spend time on computers, but his parents make sure he takes more breaks outside and avoids migraine triggers like hunger, dehydration and lack of sleep.

“For the older kids, they seem to be having a really hard time because they remember what school was really about, and now they’re allowed to do whatever on screens,” said Lowenberg-Lin, who thinks it has been easier for her younger children. “Because they were young enough, they just took to it. They don’t know anything different.”

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“Screen time” — as a concept to track meticulously, to fret and panic about, to measure parents’ worth in — is no longer considered a valid framework in a pandemic world, where the way we live our lives has been completely redefined.

Since U.S. schools began closing down roughly a year ago, the country’s children have been adapting, learning and getting creative with how they use technology. The realities of their day-to-day lives vary wildly, as have their relationships with screens. For some, technology is a savior — the lifeline keeping them in touch with friends and helping them maintain social skills; a welcome alternative to in-person school. For others, it’s a failed promise — unable to make up for the gaps in their education, their parents’ lost wages and their own mental health.

The conundrum has also splashed cold water on some tech industry promises of what can be accomplished with devices and the Internet, which overlooked the reality of living in the midst of overlapping crises.

In conversations with over a dozen families and child-development experts, the consequences of this unintentional screen-time experiment are still murky, and the effects may take years to understand.

A year of everyone turning to technology has shown us that the worth, or danger, of devices has less to do with the glowing screens themselves, and more to do with how they are used. What appears to matter most is the support systems that children and their parents have available to them.

Experts on screen time have been stepping back from terms like “addiction” and from framing it as another moral panic, the kind that seems to accompany any new technology that affects children. The shift comes at a time when allowing more screen time isn’t a choice, but a necessity for families.

Throughout the past year, people of all ages have spent significantly more time living through their screens. Many of the country’s largest school districts are still closed or offering a hybrid of in-person and remote learning, and kids with device access are using phones, school-issued computers and tablets in more ways and for longer hours.

6 ways parents can help kids strike a balance between screen time and the real world

Monitoring company Bark, which parents and schools use to track over 5 million kids’ Internet usage, found a 144 percent increase in the number of messages children sent and received online in 2020 compared with the year prior. That includes messages on social media sites, Gmail and more.

Meanwhile, a Pew Research Center report from October found that 63 percent of parents with school-age children were more concerned about screen time now than before the coronavirus pandemic. More than half of the parents surveyed were also worried about their children’s ability to maintain friendships and other social connections and about their emotional well-being. The families most likely to be concerned about all those extra hours on computers and mobile devices were upper-income households.

Parents have spent the past year largely in a state of emergency, just trying to get through days without in-person schools or, often, any child care at all. Families started using screens more to stay in touch with family members they couldn’t visit, introducing babies to their grandparents, and giving kids their only interaction with friends. Experts initially agreed it was not the time to stress out about too much video game time but for everyone to do their best and go easy on themselves.

Things changed when the fall semester rolled around, and, for many, virtual school began in earnest. Many schools were all or partially remote, with children meeting new teachers and classmates over videoconferencing apps like Zoom. Early research suggests going remote will hurt all kids, but to varying degrees. A December study by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. estimates that last year’s switch to remote school in the spring set White students back by one to three months in math, and students of color three to five months back.

‘Screen time’ has gone from sin to survival tool

“Covid has been a cascading catastrophe for education, and in particular for disadvantaged kids, but where would we be without the possibility of learning online or even entertainment?” said Ann Masten, a professor of child development at the University of Minnesota who studies risk and resilience in children.

She says screens aren’t inherently good or bad, but it’s what they’re being used for and what they are replacing that matters. In the past year, she says, screens have made things possible, like education and communication, that have been important for getting people through a period of isolation.

She’s worried, however, the pandemic will worsen disparities for kids who were in difficult situations before the schools shut down. Those whose parents lost jobs or homes, who struggle with food insecurity or who are dealing with racism. Or for kids whose needs cannot be met remotely.

In San Francisco, where public schools are still entirely remote and there’s no set date for reopening, parents of kids with special needs say they are overwhelmed and underserved. One mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared her child would face stigma for his diagnoses, is at home with her three kids all day, trying to usher her middle child with neurological differences through remote learning.

Unprecedented numbers of students have disappeared during the pandemic. Schools are working harder than ever to find them.

Bright and curious, her 8-year-old son struggles with emotional regulation and social interactions, but he was making progress before the pandemic. He had a full-time paraprofessional and speech-services at his school, and he was making friends with other kids for the first time. He had even been invited to some birthday parties.

Now he is regressing and “falling off a cliff,” said his mom. He refuses to attend online-speech sessions after failing to connect with the new teacher. He sometimes thinks other children in class are staring at him. And his older sister has started mimicking some of his coping mechanisms, like high-pitched screaming.

“They cannot access the services properly over the computer — it literally doesn’t work,” said his mother.

There is only so much teachers are able to do over screens, says Kristen Hawley Turner, a professor and director of teacher education at Drew University in New Jersey. Turner has been working with educators throughout the pandemic on increasing engagement with their students.

“It has been hard since Day 1, and it is increasingly hard to deal with student engagement through a screen. It takes an enormous amount of planning to keep students engaged in the content,” Turner said. “We are reverting back to ways we know in education research are not the best way to learn.”

For many kids whose parents aren’t able to stay at home, watching and guiding them, remote school has been far from adequate.

While Telanda Ridley was working full-time as a housekeeping supervisor at an Atlanta hotel, her five children, ages 10 to 17, were in charge of themselves and one another.

“It was horrible because my kids never made an F in school. Then, they made Fs,” Ridley said. “I was getting a phone call every other day: One wasn’t logged in, another was asleep. It was just because nobody was home to watch them.”

She made sure they had what they needed. When the pandemic began, Ridley upgraded their home Internet speed to handle the simultaneous video classes. The district issued her laptops, but they were restricted to schoolwork only, so Ridley got refurbished computers through a local nonprofit organization called InspirEDU so they could do more on them while home all day. She taught them how to responsibly use social media and not talk to strangers online, and the computers have been key to keeping them occupied and in touch with friends.

Ridley and most of the kids were thrilled when their school district started in-person classes again in mid-February, even her 10-year old daughter who used to hate getting up for school. Her oldest son, who is 17, has decided to keep doing school remotely to be safe.

In December, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned of vision problems from staring at screens too long, or too close, but said building in breaks and other precautions could help. The group had previously warned of other health effects of too much technology, like obesity. While many children have replaced some of their social interactions with online substitutes, it doesn’t entirely replace the kind of social and emotional learning that they would get in person.

Emily Dobson isn’t worried about screens being bad for her daughter. She has noticed a massive change in 9-year old Luna after pulling her out of the local school’s remote option and switching to an online home-schooling system. Freed from a rote scheduled curriculum, Luna is thriving while still learning over her computer, her mom said. She’s more interested in following her interests, like Zooming with experts around the world including a family friend in Japan who does painting classes with her twice a month. She even looks healthier, Dobson said.

Even in the best-case scenarios, a year in the life of a child can seem impossibly long. Their brains are still developing, and they’re learning key social skills in addition to school subjects. But technology is letting kids find new, creative ways to forge friendships and create social groups. Douglas B. Downey, a professor of sociology at Ohio State University who has studied the ways children learn social skills online, is optimistic they’re still getting some of that through social media and phone calls and games.

“There’s another dimension of social skills that are emerging and becoming important — the digital ones — and it’s possible that this generation is better at them,” Downey said.

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Fifteen-year-old Sophia Morabito’s parents have given her a lot of leeway with how much time she has on her computer and phone. Sophia, a high school freshman in Howard County in Maryland, says she prefers attending school remotely. She has fallen out of touch with her school friends, but she has a vibrant social life on the group-chat app Discord, where she talks regularly to friends she has bonded with over their favorite video games.

“They game and they have fun and they joke and relieve so much stress for each other that my husband was like, you know what, we’re all in for whatever lets everybody be mentally healthy,” said her mother, Jennifer Morabito.

Educators and researchers won’t know the full impact of the past year on kids until schools are fully open again. Schools are already concerned about missing students who haven’t been logging on at all to remote classes, and whom the schools haven’t been able to track down. The past year could result in a higher-than-usual dropout rate when districts open up full-time, in-person schooling.

Kids used to love screen time. Then schools made Zoom mandatory all day long.

But some families will choose to keep letting their kids learn from home. Wendy Jackson, a mom of three from Dallas County in Texas, tried remote Zoom school last spring. By May, the hospice nurse and former teacher, and her husband who is a middle school teacher, decided to try home schooling their 13-year old and 9-year-old children. She quickly found that it cut out a lot of the filler in their day and improved their moods and academic performance. They have plenty of time to play video games and watch TV, but Jackson isn’t worried about them. She says they eventually get bored with their computers and will switch to art or playing the piano or guitar.

“I would rather teach my children how to utilize tech to their advantage rather than limit it. It’s not going away,” she said.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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