Screen time usage for students going back to school is expected to increase significantly, but experts say this isn’t necessarily a bad thing if parents can balance it with other activities.
In June, the Ontario government said parents will have the option to enrol their children in remote online learning. Most schools in the province reopen Tuesday.
Matthew Johnson, director of education at MediaSmarts, said in an interview that while remote learning doesn’t necessitate an increase in “sedentary time,” or the time that a student is spending seated, it can impact a young person’s health.
Parents worry that sustained screen time will affect their children’s vision, and that more sedentary time will increase the risk of obesity. Johnson says there isn’t strong evidence that suggests increased screen time is a grave health concern.
“Anytime we are staring at a single plane for a very long time that is hard on your eyes, the evidence is still developing there, but there is definitely some evidence that a number of vision problems can be tied to long term streaming,” he said.
Johnson added that extended screen time usage could contribute to poor sleeping habits.
“We know for instance that screen use close to or after bedtime has an impact on sleep, and even having a screen device in the bedroom can have an impact, particularly if you’re accustomed to getting notifications.
“If you have your phone notify you whenever you get a like on an Instagram post, even if that doesn’t happen in the night and it doesn’t wake you up, knowing that it might happen has an impact on the quality of your sleep and good sleep is central for both physical and mental health,” he said.
Not all screen time is bad
Ramona Pringle, a tech expert and an associate professor of media studies at Ryerson University, said in an interview that all screen time isn’t “created equally.”
“When it comes to young people, often concerns about screen time that we worry about is connected to staring into the void and losing yourself at the expense of other things.
“There’s a difference between a kid who is watching a show with their parents and then engaging in a conversation about that show or playing something interactive and a lot of passive platforms,” she said.
Pringle said that when students are sitting in front of a screen, it’s easy to forget to balance sitting time with other activities.
“We need to have new social norms,” she said. “There needs to be the understanding that between one class and the next or one meeting to the next, people need to go to the bathroom, they need to get up and stretch their legs, they might need something to eat.”
“Just because you can schedule meeting to meeting to meeting and you may not have to walk across campus, doesn’t mean people don’t still need that time in between there.”
Pringle says students should still try to maintain a similar lifestyle that they had pre-COVID to keep a balanced schedule. That should include changing your surrounding and making sure you’re getting physical activity.
“Many of us have been developing rules for ourselves before COVID to try and manage the addictive allure of our devices, maybe turning it to airplane mode during work hours, or having screen free Saturdays,” she said. “But our screens have become the portals we connect with each other by. They’re where we socialize, work, and even learn, so we’ve needed to be flexible and adapt.”
Pringle added that, without proper breaks, it’s “impossible for kids to stay focused.”
“There’s only so long you can concentrate on a screen. This is true no matter your age, but especially true for younger kids who have a lot of energy they’re trying to contain. So if classes aren’t designed with this in mind, I think a lot of students will just zone out or tune out,” she said.
According to research conducted by MediaSmarts, a third of students were worried that they spend too much time online and need guidance from their parents on balancing online and offline life.
For younger kids, Johnson said it’s important that parents try to set rules in a household.
“The important thing about these rule is not that they necessarily are motivating kids out of a fear of punishment, because kids and teenagers, in particular, are not much motivated by the fear of punishment, it’s that you’re using these to communicate to them the values you want them to live by,” he said.
Johnson added that rules are a valuable way of being healthy.
“You’re not approaching screen use as something that is inherently bad or wrong, and you’re not trying to take away things that they enjoy. You’re prioritizing positive uses,” he said.