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remote learning Amplified art for Emily Cherkin screen time column, 10/1/2020

Opinion | Are kids being damaged by remote learning? That depends

The 3 big fears, with facts and tips for parents.

Remote learning: Last week, a friend called to ask me, “Is my child going to have actual brain damage from so much online time?”

The answer is no. And yes. Sort of.

Like many social media relationships, it’s complicated.

First of all, remote learning looks vastly different for different kids, and varies wildly even within schools and between teachers. 

Many kids are going to “survive” remote learning and be more or less fine. A smaller subset will not be fine. And, as usual, the negative impacts will disproportionately affect those children who are already most disadvantaged in our communities.

Immediate brain damage due to excessive screen use is not what should be driving our concerns, however.

Before the pandemic, children were spending upwards of six hours per day on screens for social media, video watching and gaming. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children ages 2 to 5 spend no more than one hour per day on “high-quality, educational programming,” and advises no more than two hours per day for older children.

But those hours were outside of the school day, which, until recently, was a mostly screen-free zone. Parents could breathe a small sigh of relief in knowing that their kids were getting a break from screens.

Of course, online remote learning has turned that upside down. And the likelihood is that we may be in this holding pattern for a while.

The damage done will not be solely because of the screens, however. Parents are rightfully concerned about a lot of different issues, so let’s name three fears, acknowledge the facts and find ways to address them in the future:

#1. The Fear: “All this time on screens is damaging my child’s brain!”

The Facts: Too much time on screens is unpleasant, at best, for most humans. It is not uncommon for adults to get headaches and tired eyes after a few hours of screen consumption. Increasing rates of myopia (permanent nearsightedness) are very concerning. (Importantly, the best way to prevent myopia is spending time outdoors.) But the key here is not just the screen itself. It is the sedentary behavior that comes with passive consumption. If your child’s teacher has the kids doing dance breaks, stretches, singing, playing movement games, the impact will look very different than if a child is sitting in a chair, unmoving. 

The Future: To protect your child, encourage physical activity. Take breaks. Don’t make it about “sitting until you are done.” Make it about movement. Recess is a vitally important part of any school day, and exercise improves focus — something kids need in the extreme for remote learning.

#2. The Fear: “My child will hate learning by the end of this school year.”

The Facts: Frankly, some kids will. But even in pre-pandemic times, lots of kids hated school. For better or worse, having our kids home more may mean we can mitigate this.

The Future: Teachers are working hard to stay connected to students in spite of the new format. Once children are connected digitally, it’s time to nurture the human connections as much as one can over videoconferencing. As parents, focus on what’s working, model effective and respectful problem-solving, and be an advocate for your child when they need you — but be supportive of their self-advocacy too. If logging into remote learning is causing serious stress, however, don’t fight it. Choose your battles. Forcing remote learning participation will not increase a child’s natural curiosity. Instead, especially for younger children, it is so important to understand that learning happens during imaginative, tactile, three-dimensional, offline play. As much as possible, prioritize play.

#3. The Fear: “My family is falling apart from the stress of remote learning.”

The Facts: Learning does not happen when children are stressed. Family resilience will not happen when families are stressed. And while children experienced stress pre-pandemic, remote learning, employment stability, housing access and health concerns have added new stressors for many families.

The Future: If this is not working for your family, don’t do it. Schools are accepting mental health reasons for excused absences, as they should. Truancy laws are not being enforced. You can opt out of remote learning without unenrolling from public school. There are so many systemic problems; fixing one will not fix them all. Prioritize your family’s health and well-being and do what is best for your family. Those with privilege have more options, for sure, but cut back where you can and safeguard mental health and well-being.

The bottom line is this is hard for everyone in different ways, children included, and online learning is disproportionately hard on younger children and families without resources. It is important to remember, however, that in general, children are resilient and can bounce back quickly. If we can provide safe, supportive, offline play for them, we can help nurture that resilience. 

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Editor’s note: Publication of an opinion piece does not mean Seattle’s Child or its staff endorses the views of the author.

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About the Author

Emily Cherkin

Emily empowers parents to understand and balance family screentime by inspiring a movement around becoming Tech-Intentional™. As a mother of two children and former teacher, she is intimately familiar with the daunting challenges facing families in today’s highly digitized world. Emily is the author of the book The Screentime Solution: A Judgment-Free Guide to Becoming a Tech-Intentional Family, released in 2024. Learn more at