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Online learning is wreaking havoc on Ontario’s children

As Ontario kids prepare to return to class next week, parents and experts are worried about the effects of distance learning over the past 18 months and what a future return to school might mean. line for the welfare of children.

“Our brains weren’t designed to work that way, to learn things through two-dimensional screens for hours on end,” said Marjorie Robb, psychiatrist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa. .

Online learning can reduce children’s attention spans, promote multitasking (which our brains aren’t designed to do), and create challenges with self-regulation, Robb said.

But the biggest challenge of virtual learning is less what it is and more what it is not: that is, a dynamic environment in which children can build and navigate relationships, learn through their five senses and participate in extracurricular activities.

Andrea Moffat says her six-year-old son Justice struggles to navigate school on a screen and she fears he may lose the social skills that come with being in a physical environment, like learning to resolve conflicts.

With virtual learning, a teacher cannot quietly take a student aside and ask them what’s wrong, so checking in often means distinguishing them in front of the class – something that can be especially difficult for the little ones, Moffat said. She gave an example of what happened when Justice didn’t attend a virtual gym class and his teacher called him.

“For some kids the way the camera focuses on them, that standing out can be a lot, especially for the little ones,” she said. “He’s only six years old.

“The skills of dealing with a two-dimensional group of people on a screen are not the same as the skills you develop by being with real people in real time,” Robb said. Particularly for young children who have spent more of their life online, there may be a “deficit” in social skills such as reading body language and learning to “give and take” interpersonal relationships. .

While experts say some well-teched students who suffer from social pressures in school may prefer virtual learning, much of it harms children’s mental health.

In July, researchers at Sick Kids Hospital interviewed more than 2,200 school-aged children (ages six to 18) and found that the more time students spent learning online, the more symptoms of depression they experienced. and anxiety.

Even as teachers try to make the virtual school attractive, children are missing out on the positive experiences that come from being there in person, said Catherine Birken, Sick Kids pediatrician and study author.

“Schools are not only places of learning, they are also places of social and emotional development,” she said. “When you take that away from children, you leave families with few options. “

On the first day back after winter, Moffat said Justice was eager to tell his friends about his Christmas and show them his cats, but “the online environment doesn’t allow it.”

For Brampton dad, Jagdeep Mann, it’s not just about the extra screen time during school hours, but the challenge of keeping his kids away from screens during breaks and after school when ‘they usually ran at recess or trained with their sports teams. . Her son Himmit, 12, plays basketball and her daughters Harsun, nine, and Dharus, seven, practice gymnastics, football and swimming.

“As parents, we’re already trying to keep our kids off the screen in normal times,” Mann said. He and his wife work full time, so they can’t take their children to play for lunch or between classes.

The Sick Kids study also found that the increased time spent on screens outside of school – watching TV, surfing the web and playing video games – was associated with more irritability, hyperactivity, inattention, depression and anxiety in young people.

“When you take away all of the other kids’ activities and opportunities, then you’re going to see – as we’ve seen – that screen time is just going to explode,” Birken said.

Since returning to school in person this fall, Mann has said his children have come home “bubbly and happy.” That’s a marked difference from last year, when months of online learning drained them.

“They just weren’t having fun,” he said. “For kids this age, school is fun. They go there to interact with their friends. When you’re not having fun during the day, it affects your mood. It has an impact on your daily state of mind that you have, your enthusiasm.

Robb says planning regular breaks, spending time outdoors, exercising and socializing – even if only with family members – can help lessen the mental health effects of online school.

Birken recommends that parents try to encourage more interactive screen time (like online workouts) and develop screen-less times, like during meals and before bed.

However, she said it was “problematic” to focus mitigation strategies on working parents during a pandemic, and that it should be up to policy makers to make sports and recreation accessible to children when schools are closed.

Lex Harvey is a Toronto-based newsletter producer for The Star and author of the First Up newsletter. Follow her on Twitter: @lexharv

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