As a teacher, researcher and scientist, I have often reminded my students to let the facts speak for themselves. When it comes to the psychological effects of online distance learning on our children, the data,is sobering.
But no parent needs data to know that six months of being forced to learn from screens has done serious damage to our children.
Lest you label me a ‘Covid-denier’, let me assure you know that I am all for taking social distancing measures whenever necessary, especially when it comes to protecting the health of our senior and/or immuno-compromised citizens.
That said, something has to be done to counteract the reality of what is happening to millions of children today. We cannot sit by and pretend that serious damage is not being inflicted on our children’s mental health.
Exhibit A: My fourteen year old son
Academically, my son is thriving. In fact, online learning has been a perfect match for this introverted, comfort-loving 14-year-old. His current interests – football and gaming – are not atypical. However, with the demands of online learning, ‘real’ football has been slowly but surely swept aside as the comfort and instant gratification he gets from his PS4 surpasses the need to get out of the house, requires no social distancing precautions with friends and he doesn’t have to get all hot and sweaty. My son’s daily exercise is now done through an app that promises him a six pack in six weeks.
While all of this sounds fairly normal for the average moody teenager, it is not normal. Being cooped up in front of a screen for seven hours a day has made a relatively solitary existence feel normal for my child. There is evidence of neurotic behavior, such as excessive handwashing and phone “sterilizing, ” which is more worrying. Frankly, it’s creeping me out. My son even tells his brothers off for not washing their hands properly when they come in from playing outside. I am supposed to be the neurotic mom, not my 14-year-old. This is not ok.
Exhibit B: My 11-year-old daughter
Our artist. The one who never fails to surprise us all with her creative expression. That is, until recently. For six to seven hours a day, she has to be plugged into her virtual classroom. At 3 pm, she trudges out of her room, mentally drained. There is no room for artistic expression. Her light has been dimmed.
Recently, I’ve noticed that I have to call her down repeatedly for lunch or dinner. It turns out that she and her friends are now meeting on “Zoom” more often (which means more screen time) to play Among Us, a game apparently based on the premise that an imposter is lurking within. I now have to put additional limits on gaming screen time after schooling screen time. More limits, more restrictions, more madness. At least we have ice-skating lessons.
Exhibit C: My eight-year-old son
The one who never stops. Until now, that is. Being in ‘real school’ only two days a week has put the brakes on my once super active, inquisitive, energetic child. There was a time not long ago when I had to call him to come in for lunch. Now, I need to tell him it is time to go outside and play. At the beginning of online learning, we had fun. We crafted, we baked, we did science experiments together. Now, sadly, after the novelty of learning at home has worn off, it has become mostly about ticking off the boxes on the myriad lists of assignments and tasks that are due. When I put on my teacher hat, I try to keep it fresh (or at least I think I do). But on bad days when he’s just about had it with online learning, my son tells me that I am the ‘best mom’ but ‘the worst teacher ever.’.I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Exhibit D: My six-year-old son
My dad calls my youngest child my travel buddy. I take him with me everywhere. We have always been inseparable. My son also likes to shadow me at home, but lately he’s become more clingy. “Why do moms and dads have to go out to dinner?” he asks me anxiously before the occasional night out with my husband. What worries me is that my son has always been an independent sleeper, even as a toddler, but now I have to stay in his room until he falls sleep.
I am happy that so far at least, he is enjoying his two days of school a week. Luckily, he is in a great school with dedicated, caring teachers. However, for a six-year-old, his behavior is becoming worryingly obsessive. “I didn’t wash my hands!” he cries several times a day before taking a bite of anything I offer. Again, I can’t believe I am not the one who needs to be reminding him to wash his hands.
But the most damning evidence of what this crazy, damaging year has done, is what my six-year-old asks the minute I walk into the house: “Can I hug you? Are you clean?”
This is insane. I really hope the damage is reversible.
Nadine Kamal is a science writer and educator based in Abu Dhabi. She has a BSc in Biology from the University of Waterloo and a Master’s in Education from the University of Dundee. Nadine has an avid interest in international education, refugee education and in the wellbeing of children and young adults.