The transition to remote learning was sudden in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and most schools and educators were ill-prepared to support their students through the process. Remote-learning seemed to be the only option when in-person teaching became too dangerous, but what impact does the remote-learning format have on students short term and long term? And most importantly, what can be done by educators to minimize or even negate these negative neurological impacts?
The most noticeable change which occurred when schooling went online is that the time spent in class, doing classwork, and doing homework was now all entirely in front of a screen as opposed to physical worksheets, whiteboards, or face-to-face classroom discussions. While many states/countries have mandated that digital learning not surpass three hours per day for high school students, a realistic look at class time, homework time, school/club meeting time, and personal time spent per day online puts average screen time well above said district expectations. Benchmarks are useful, but again only apply to public schools and are only suggestions or guidelines, not enforceable rules. Screen time increase was also exacerbated by the out-of-school social-distancing practices. In order for students to safely connect with their friends they reverted to texting, calling, and FaceTiming.
Is increased screen time really that bad though? Can we observe the neurological impacts without a long-term study? Harvard University aimed to answer these questions through the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital’s Clinic for Interactive Media and Internet Disorders. This center explores how “digital pursuits… activate the brain’s reward system” and the impact this has on a young person’s brain development, self control, behavior, etc. Michael Rich, director of the center, quotes that young people are still in the process of developing their prefrontal cortexes and therefore have trouble with self-control and limiting obsessive behavior in regards to their technological use. Other studies quote increased screen time as impacting cortical thickness and dopamine function in the brain. An important distinction to make is that studies which examine increased screen time often reviewed populations experiencing “internet addiction” and are cited to be partaking in activities centered around online gaming rather than online working.
Another major factor in the studies behind the neurological impact on increased screen time is neural plasticity. Plasticity is “the capacity of the brain to change with learning” or how malleable or easily influenced the nervous system is by one’s lived experiences. On a scientific level, plasticity refers to the forming of connections between neurons and the shaping of the internal structure of neural pathways and synapses. It is commonly understood that the younger you are, the more ‘plastic’ your brain is and as you age said plasticity decreases. This is why it is easier to learn new languages when you are younger and why developmental years are perceived to be so vital. Given this information, the question is posed as to whether or not the impact that remote-learning has on younger students is more impactful than that it might have on older students or adults participating in remote workdays.
In addition to increased screen time, remote learning has meant that students are no longer engaging in direct social contact or conversation with their teachers, classmates, administrators, etc. Social interaction is long known to play a crucial role in emotional development and oftentimes physical well-being too. In the recent paper “The Neurobiology of Social Distance,” Danilo Bzdok quotes that “Social deprivation in childhood and in late adulthood both impact on neurobiological architecture and functional organization. The ensuing loss of social and cognitive capacity has significant public health consequences” (Bzdok Box 3). He specifically notes a detriment to cognitive performance surrounding visual-spatial memory, physical reduction in gray-white brain matter tissue and other abnormalities on MRI scan, as well as increased decay/shortening of telomeres, or DNA “caps.”
All of these impacts are concerning to say the least and, of course, lead to the question: what can be done? Educators, parents, and students themselves are unfortunately living in a COVID-19 world and most will be continuing with partially or entirely remote schools in this coming fall semester. Luckily, there are tons of steps that students and educators alike can do to reduce the neurological impact of remote-learning. On the side of the educator, making conscious efforts to assign work which takes place off of the computer or facilitating virtual discussions rather than only lecturing or assigning webinars is a really good way to lessen screen time for students and give them an opportunity to exercise their communication skills once again. On the side of the student, options are slightly more limited. While students can make an effort to lessen screen time outside of school requirements, it still may not be enough. One of the most impactful things a student can do right now is to safely stay connected to their friends and families. From FaceTimes to “car hang-outs,” kids are creatively finding ways to curb their loneliness and limit the impact that academic/social isolation is having on them mentally and physically.