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Ask the Pediatrician: Keeping kids healthy during online learning

Ideas for coping with all of that computer time.

Online learning: To be a kid now is to spend too much time in front of a screen.

Most school requires at least three hours at a computer per day. Kids rely on social media and gaming platforms to keep in touch with friends they never see. And working parents need to keep their kids occupied. The hours add up.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation for a 5-year-old child’s daily screen time? One hour of high-quality programming. And for older kids, parents are strongly encouraged to minimize and monitor screen time.

Given that reducing screen time to the previously recommended levels is becoming impossible during remote schooling, what can we do to keep kids healthy in the months before physical classrooms reopen full time?

online learningOur best chance comes from something many of us didn’t do back in the stressed-out days of early spring: establish a healthy routine, says Dr. Susanna Block, a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente Capitol Hill.


For Block, the first priority is sleep.

“Lack of sleep can really affect our kids’ ability to learn, through lack of concentration and memory and also control of our emotions,” says Block.

And the more hours online, the more likely sleep is to be disrupted. Exposure to light radiating from screens gets in the way of the body’s ability to nod off.

It’s a good idea to have a set bedtime, and establish a “no screens” rule in the hour before that bedtime, Block says.


The next essential element is exercise.

With younger kids, schedule “move breaks.” A 15-minute move break for every 45 minutes of screen time is a good idea, Block says. For all kids, try and make exercise a social happening. Maybe they could kick a soccer ball with the few friends from their “bubble,” or go on a socially distanced bike ride with friends outside that bubble.

A place to work

One thing Block has noticed in her clinic is an increase in kids coming in with headaches, eye strain and neck and back pains.

“Kids are now developing some of the overuse injuries that we attribute to adults,” Block says.

One thing parents can do to prevent this? Make sure that kids have a dedicated, comfortable place to work that makes ergonomic sense, and doesn’t sit them too close to the screen. No more sprawling on the bed, or reaching up to a computer on a too-high kitchen table. Pay attention to your child’s posture when working, and how well lit the space is.

“It’s time to critically think about what is going to work,” Block says.

Take breaks

Online learning is a lot to ask of young kids. Some days, your kids might not be able to focus through a whole day of video chatting, and that’s fine, Block says:

“It is OK to step away from the computer and take a break. If we need to take a break, have an extra-long lunch and go for a walk, it’s OK.”

Stop doomscrolling

It’s hard to look away from the parade of calamities that constitute life in America in 2020, but adults should try and limit kids’ exposure to the news, and they should put limits on themselves too – to, say, three or four news checks a day.

Don’t hesitate to ask for help

Parents should be aware of signs that their kids are struggling with depression or anxiety, Block says.

“If you feel like your child is excessively sad or withdrawn, or if they are no longer interested in activities they used to enjoy, and they’re not reaching out, or they’re sleeping more, or don’t want to eat, it’s definitely time to have them come in and be evaluated by a primary care provider,” she says. Younger kids may act out more often, and throw more tantrums.

If you’re not sure whether your child needs help, you can schedule a phone call or a video chat with your child’s provider.

Be ready to change course

Though we know a lot more now than we did in spring 2020 about how kids adjust to online learning, we’re still in unknown territory. Block says parents should be ready to adjust routines as we find out more:

“I think we just have to keep evaluating what we’re doing, and find out what’s working.”

This story on online learning was originally published in September 2020.

More from Dr. Block:

Helping kids cope as COVID drags on

About the Author

Fiona Cohen