A year ago, our lives changed drastically in a matter of weeks as the pandemic took the world by surprise. March 2020 began with countries introducing draconian lockdowns, causing the cessation of most educational institutions’ activities. Students and parents initially welcomed online learning as the period of lockdown seemed quite brief. Online learning was praised as the ‘need of the hour’ and ‘the safest option.’ Students reported that virtual learning was less stressful than physical learning and felt that they were given the opportunity to better express themselves. As social distancing measures continued, virtual learning soon became the only viable option. While the early days of the pandemic were akin to an idyllic vacation, as weeks turned to months quarantine started resembling entrapment more than vacation. A year on, it is still difficult to gauge the impact of the lost opportunities of socialization on young children but the psychological and physical impacts are evident. Researchers who have studied the effects of school closures found a measurable loss in the acquisition of basic skills, especially in the case of disadvantaged children. The pandemic is a universal crisis, and for some students the impact will be lifelong.
Image of an empty classroom by Mwesigma Joel
An image of a young teen attending online class by Annie Spratt
There has been a marked difference in the impact of distance non personal learning between older and younger children, with the latter being more negatively impacted. Firstly, the rapid shift from regular school to online teaching left students feeling lost. Younger children sitting in their homes, often with no adult supervision distracted by their surroundings were barely able to follow what was being taught through a screen. Not meeting their friends and physically interacting with teachers created an unfamiliar void in their lives. Although students enjoyed the company of their families at home, a year out of school came at a large cost as they were stripped of social interaction with children their own age. Playing in a group, watching and listening to their peers and interactions with teachers help them grow. For young children, interacting with their friends and teachers is a vital social skill. In the course of such interactions, they learn discipline, controlling emotions, how to share, how to wait for one’s turn and much more.
A major impact of school closure particularly on young children has thus been on the process of socialization. Socialization refers to the ongoing process of learning expected behaviours through which a child is moulded to learn social norms and culture. A family provides the first lessons in primary socialization. However, later on, from the time children join kindergarten, their experiences in school, playgrounds and community gatherings contribute to their secondary socialization. It is during these two stages that basic values are learnt and cognitive, emotional and physical development occur. Two sets of people play a defining role in a child’s socialization:
a) parents and teachers
b) friends and classmates.
With schools being shut for over a year now, there has been a significant break in the socialization process of young children.Young children between the ages of 4-5 years of age who would have begun attending school lost an entire academic year. Learning through a screen at this age is not a viable option as it requires colossal amounts of patience and attention. Furthermore, pre-schoolers need personal one-on-one attention.
Older students on the other hand were burdened with excessive homework, and being away from friends and peers led to them having no outlet to unleash their pent up emotions. Not having anyone in their age group to physically interact with, students began suffering from anxiety, weight gain, stress and even depression. A recent study conducted on quarantined children in China proved that around one-third of the children suffered from symptoms of depression and anxiety. Another study demonstrated a high prevalence of psychological distress in quarantined children and adolescents in India. These individuals have experienced helplessness, worry and fear compared to non-quarantined children. Children who were shy, hesitated to make friends with their classmates online and even found themselves completely devoid of any peer relationships ever since the lockdown was implemented.
The social touch is essential to develop cognition, emotions, attachment and relationships. In addition, it also contributes to the physiological regulation of the body's responses to acute stressors as well as other short-term challenges. Teachers often prefer to make their students turn their cameras off for the entirety of the lectures and many teachers don’t even bother switching on their cameras. Imagine staring at a screen for hours on end, trying terribly hard to pay attention when you can’t view the person attempting to teach you.
Children playing football by Robert Collins
As far as the physical impact of remote learning is concerned, students are gradually becoming less active and are losing interest in outdoor activities. Not only does digital learning zap a student's mental energy but it also has adverse effects on their physical health. Tinnitus, spine pain, headaches and eye strain are only a few of the adverse effects that online learning has on a student. Online video calls are socially draining as it requires more work to pick up on social cues, especially when unable to see people’s faces and bodies in real time due to lagging. A National Geographic article explains that “a typical video call impairs these ingrained abilities, and requires sustained and intense attention to words instead.” This is referred to as “Zoom fatigue.” Parents should be made aware of the negative effects that online learning has on their children and must work towards providing them with adequate recreational projects to reduce the physical stress it has on them.
Children are missing out on physical activities in schools and colleges as they are restricted to their own homes. Students are no longer walking to their classrooms or attending gym classes. It is widely known that physical activity is imperative to stay fit, with sedentary study being found to be detrimental to the student’s physical wellbeing. Attending online classes while lying on a sofa or a bed results in poor posture and chronic back aches. The restriction to one’s own home has led to students changing their eating habits, leading to a rise in obesity which in turn will affect their growth. Research indicates that higher physical activity in children during their growing period results in better physical and mental health for the next 3-4 decades of life. Additionally, remaining indoors all day does not guarantee proper exposure to sunlight thereby depriving students of their daily intake of vitamin D.
As online learning is increasingly adopted with no indication of halting, students are increasingly learning to live with below average physical interactions further altering their social lives. Adults need to take on the initiative of allotting outdoor tasks to their children to ensure spending time out in the open, as well as encouraging them to do some form of physical activity.
Image of a teen studying late by Victoria Health
The psychological effects of online learning are evident, with 29% of parents in a recent poll stating that their child is “already experiencing harm” to their emotional or mental health because of social distancing and school closures. Online school doesn’t have the social element of in person school, which is crucial to students’ social and emotional learning. Furthermore, some students may not be privileged enough to own a mobile device to attend online lectures or suffer from poor internet connection. This leads to a loss of their motivation to attend their online lectures, being unable to follow what is being taught. Students also complain of being bombarded with homework and assignments, with some being unable to cope. Anxiety, depression, irritability, boredom, addiction and fear of COVID-19 are predominant new-onset psychological problems in children during the COVID-19 pandemic. Younger students might not be able to easily communicate their needs to adults, and as a result parents are being encouraged to be more actively engaged in the online process of learning.
Effects on the Underprivileged
Underprivileged children face a number of additional difficulties with online learning.
From having barely sufficient internet connections to support online classes to having to share a device with other siblings, economically disadvantaged children face significant barriers hindering their learning.
A vast number of economically disadvantaged children have witnessed their parents losing their jobs due to the pandemic, leading to children dropping out of school in order to help them make ends meet.The pandemic has led to the “biggest global education emergency of our lifetime,” according to a report by the Save The Children Fund. The emergence of virtual learning has further widened the digital divide prevalent in our society between the students who can afford to adapt to this contemporary solution and those who unfortunately, cannot.
Effects on Differently Abled Children
Special children need that special touch. Children with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have a high probability of worsening their behavioral symptoms. Educators working with students with special needs explain that it is almost impossible to teach them virtually, and that their progress has significantly deteriorated because of online learning. It takes a great deal of time, effort, routine and repetition to teach a special child something which may take just a few minutes otherwise. Special students who could previously perform basic activities after months of training by their teachers have forgotten what they have been taught. Since these students are unable to physically interact with their teachers, parents have had to take on the role of being their primary educator. Already burdened with their own jobs along with the additional time and effort required in being a special child’s caregiver, many parents have been unable to assume the additional role of a teacher, leading to a gradual decline in their child’s academic progress.
A way going forward
Students attending school with masks by Mira Kireeva
Remote learning has visibly had more negative effects than expected, with the impact expected to linger in the years to come. Although remote learning was necessary during the pandemic, the future of complete online learning for long periods of time looks quite unpromising thus propelling educational institutions to search for alternatives to engage their students. A hybrid of in-person and distance learning called blended learning is one of the many proposed models for future teaching. Allowing access to teachers and peers in person when required whilst still maintaining online learning materials, allows students in limited quantities the interactions they desperately crave while still adhering to social distancing rules.
Remote learning was a temporary solution to a bigger problem, and has arguably proved to do more harm than good where student welfare and learning is concerned. A child’s capabilities cannot be gauged through a screen. In order to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the world, students must be able to involve themselves in practical work and surround themselves with peers as well as adults who will help them to learn and grow. In the words of John Holt, “Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners.”
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22nd June, 2021
Figueiredo, C.S.de et al., 2020. COVID-19 pandemic impact on children and adolescents' mental health: Biological, environmental, and social factors. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278584620304875
Code, A., The physical and mental effects of online learning. The Northern Light. Available at: https://portagenorthernlight.com/8266/feature/the-physical-and-mental-effects-of-online-learning/
Health, N., 2020. Effect of Online Classes on Children's physical health. Narayana Health Care. Available at: https://www.narayanahealth.org/blog/effect-of-online-classes-on-childrens-physical-health/
Bonal, X. and González, S., 2021. The impact of lockdown on the learning gap: family and school divisions in times of crisis. Available at: https://acerforeducation.acer.com/education-trends/blended-learning/covid-19-will-blended-learning-become-the-future-of-education/