COVID-19 Distance-Learning & Perils of Screen Time

by Dr. Eli Shapiro

As increasing numbers of homebound teachers and parents (and teachers who are also parents) are discovering, amidst the COVID-19 crisis, that the line between healthy and harmful use of technology has never been more blurred.

Distance-Learning: Enhancement or Intrusion?

With schools around the country closing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many are turning to digital platforms to provide ongoing quality education. Companies like Google and Zoom provide distance-learning platforms with a whole host of features and options that allow teachers and students to connect via audio and video, as well as share content and screens in real time. Students can virtually raise their hands to ask questions and receive answers and even break off into virtual collaborative working groups. Many universities have long been using this technology to offer courses and degrees – further expanding their ability to provide more educational options to students who would have otherwise been limited by geographic location.

However the following question has emerged from concerned parents and educators alike.

“We have heard the warnings about excessive screen time causing immediate and long-term developmental issues. How can schools now promote a screen-based platform of distance learning?”

The term “screen time” is actually a misconception. It implies that the mere fact that one is in front of a screen is problematic – which is simply not true. Screen time should be viewed in multiple qualitative categories. For the purpose of this article, we will divide it into two categories: consumption and creative.

Consumption screen time is when the user is simply watching something happen on a screen for entertainment purposes and takes limited or no active part in the experience. There is little value in this type of screen time and excessive consumption can be problematic.

Creative, on the other hand, involves interaction and learning. Whether it is coding, graphic design, working on spreadsheets, writing or distance learning, there is a cognitive process that is taking place that is engaging, interactive, productive and growth-oriented. Although both are screen time, they are clearly not equal in quality or the risks that are often associated with screen time.

As schools, out of necessity, move to a distance-learning model, we should not confuse the shared academic and creative experience guided by an educator, with binging on Netflix, Hulu or Disney Plus. All screen time is not created equal.

Here’s a fundamental question we should always ask ourselves about technology: “Is technology serving as an enhancement or an intrusion?” In light of the current situation of school closures, social distancing, shelter-in-place and quarantine, as more schools begin offering interactive educational opportunities through platforms like Zoom and Google Hangouts, this is enhancing our experience rather than serving as an intrusion and it is an opportunity that should be embraced.

Dr. Eli Shapiro (elishapiro.com) is a licensed clinical social worker and licensed school administrator, with a doctorate in education. He is the creator and director of The Digital Citizenship Project (thedigitalcitizenship.com) and a world-renowned lecturer on technology and human behavior.