Covid-19: How rising screen time disrupts learning experience

Using computers for many hours risks blunting academic performance, experts say. / Net photo

The coronavirus pandemic is remaking the way children learn, and it could have an impact on their academic progress.

With schools shifting to remote learning globally, experts argue that children are spending more time in front of computer screens, mobile phones, among other gadgets, hence, spending less time playing outdoors.


This, according to Olivier Minani, a student tutor, is particularly challenging because parents have seemingly ignored the trend.


“It needs urgent action because many parents are relaxing screen-time rules for their children,” Minani says.


Minani’s comment follows a recent high-quality research which demonstrated that children who watch television or use computers for many hours risk blunting their academic performance.

Ordinarily, the World Health Organization recommends only two hours of screen time for children younger than 18 years, but according to the research, younger children below eight years have exceeded that recommendation since the pandemic began.

This, according to the research conducted by Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI), an Australian paediatric medical research institute, leads to a drop in academic performance.

The researchers recruited 1,239 children from the Childhood to Adolescence Transition Study (CATS) whose academic performance was measured in Grade 3 and later in Grade 5(primary school) using the National Assessment Programme – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) results.

Research results, however, indicated that Grade 3 (equivalent to primary four) students who watched more than two hours of TV a day, or used a computer for more than one hour a day, lowered performance by 12-points in reading and numeracy when they joined Grade 5 level (primary six), compared with their peers who spent less time on TV and computers.

The survey also found that watching more than two hours of TV a day in primary six/grade 5 was associated with 12-point lower in math and reading scores, and using a computer for more than one hour a day with a 14-point lower math result than their peers.

Like other countries, the research comes at a time children in Rwanda are practising remote learning after the government stopped in-person class sessions to further contain the virus.

Mary Kobusingye, a special needs education specialist at the Ministry of Education, observes that now is a good time to revisit assumptions linked to children’s use of these devices.

“Parents might need to use the extra time they spend with their children to learn more about each other’s worlds, both digital and physical,” Kobusingye asserts.

Additionally, she says, “Children need a physical connection with their parents or guardians more than anything. Parents should use this opportunity to get closer to them.”

As the Covid-19 pandemic shows, Minani says, everyone is increasingly reliant on digital technology.

“In fact it has become a lifeline for most of these students who can’t access their school premises,” he says.

According to Minani, effects of electronic media on children’s eyesight as well as their mental health have for long attracted attention.

Similarly, he says, the new research calls for an urgent action from various stakeholders.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit the country, says Rosette Mutesi, a parent, “Most of us understood that too much screen time was a bad thing for our children. But now that screens have increasingly become ever-present in our daily lives, we are supposed to take stringent measures.”

In contrast, however, Mutesi believes that screens can be a positive force during the Covid-19 times.

“This is especially the case for older children as it is important for them to maintain social and family connections. These connections are valid for their emotional well-being during these times that no one saw coming,” Mutesi says.

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