What Parents Need to Know About Online Learning

| 12 min read time

This year, parents have to figure out how to balance a new kind of screen time: online learning. Here’s what you need to know.

The addition of school on screens has the potential to affect your kids in many ways. The more you stay informed, the better equipped you’ll be to create a healthy balance for them.

Why Online Learning Needs to Be Addressed

Post-pandemic, screens will be even more ingrained in education than before. Parents want (and deserve) a clear picture of the effects of online learning on their kids’ academic performance.

How (and Why) Screen Time Affects Education

It’s a fact: screen time affects a kid’s brain development. Overexposure to screens can hinder knowledge retention, creativity, and even your kids’ grades. Since so much of this school year will be online, staying on top of screen time is crucial. Learn about the main areas to focus on when you’re considering the effects of screens during this school year.


Your kids actually require more sleep than you do. Kids ages 3 to 5 need 10 to 13 hours; ages 6 to 13 need about 9 to 11 hours while teens need 8 to 10 hours. Adults should be getting at least 7, but many aren’t. And screens are often to blame.

The bright blue light on our screens can slow down our body’s ability to produce melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy and keeps us sleeping soundly.

“It takes an hour for the brain to calm down,” says Dr. Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Texas Children’s Hospital and an associate professor at Baylor, in a recent New York Times article on the effects of screens on our brains before sleep.

According to recent studies, 70 percent of children check their mobile devices within 30 minutes of falling asleep at night. That will affect how well they sleep.

Limiting screen time at least an hour or more before bed using the Circle Bedtime feature will help your kids fall asleep faster, sleep soundly, and wake up rested the next day so they are better prepared for the school day.

Academic performance

Because the blue light from our screens can disrupt sleep patterns, the brain ends up missing out on deep REM sleep. That’s a problem because not getting that deep sleep affects the brain’s process of storing information learned during the day into memory.

Even if your kids are engaged with their classes during the day (online or off), without enough REM sleep, they may not be able to recall that juicy information the next day, which will ultimately affect their performance.

Distractions are also easy to succumb to on screens. Circle makes it easy to monitor your kids’ Internet history to make sure they are staying on task. If they’re not focused on school work during the day, you’ll know.

The brain

During the school day, it will be important to help your kids avoid jumping from school-related screen time to entertainment-related screen time. Their brains need downtime to develop.

Kids need a balance of online and offline experiences, including the space to let their minds wander offline. Sometimes, that means they’re bored. But boredom can be a good thing for brain development.

“Boredom is the space in which creativity and imagination happen,” says Dr. Michael Rich, the Director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital. He’s currently conducting a long-term study on the cognitive effects of screen time in children.

Constant screen time can overstimulate the brain, and kids can miss out on developing the creative and passive thinking skills. On the extreme end, kids can quickly become addicted to constant stimulation.

How to Manage Online Learning at Home

As a parent, school isn’t a new part of your daily routine. But, with many schools opting for some form of distance learning, you’re probably noticing the living room is turning into homeroom.

And one thing is for certain—most, if not all of these lessons, conversations with teachers, assignments, and socializing with friends require a screen these days. Here’s how you and your kids find a balance between all those screens.

Add offline activities

Studies show that there’s more you can do to help your kids sleep better at night than just limiting screen time during the day and before bed. Getting into a routine and staying active is a great place to start.

The isolation of learning at home can lead to less outdoor activities, less face-to-face interpersonal communications, and even less mood-enhancing sunlight. All of those things will affect how kids are behaving, sleeping, and learning, which we know impacts their school performance.

“When children sense their caregivers are engaged, addressing fears, and setting appropriate limits, sleep gets better,” says Dr. Judith Owens, contributor to a study on the topic in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. She went on to add that there are several simple things parents can do to help children regain balance in their day and rest better at night:

  • Regular mealtimes Try getting your kids involved in the process of cooking meals and sitting down together for each one. There’s plenty to learn in the kitchen, including measurements, nutrition, and just basic responsibility.

  • Natural light Vitamin D is a proven method to improve mood and a great way to boost the immune system. Make a plan to include at least one outdoor activity during the day, even if it involves lessons. What’s stopping you from doing math drills in the backyard?

  • Exercise Exercise improves the ability to concentrate and has been linked to better academic scores and higher self-esteem in kids. Plus, it's a good habit to develop early. So, while your kids are doing school at home, find an activity they enjoy and add it into their daily routine. Why not walk and talk through the 50 states and their capitals rather than sitting inside on the couch?

Try blue light-blockers

Blue light-blocking glasses are a well-reviewed option for both kids and adults. Wearing them during the day may help your kids avoid some of the light rays that affect their sleep habits and help prevent eye exhaustion while on screens. It doesn’t cut down on screen time, but can help mitigate one of the negative aspects.

Excellent solution, even during virtual school! We can control Internet content and even add custom filters, like Google Meet for our first grader.


Find balance throughout the day

The best thing you can offer your kids right now is a balance between distance learning and screen time. Even though lessons may need to be mostly done at home, inside, at the computer, encourage your kids to reward themselves after they’ve worked hard with a quick game of hide-and-seek in the backyard or by listening to music. You can help remind your kids to take much-needed breaks by using Circle’s Focus Time Feature.

For instance, if their math and science lessons take about 2 hours in the morning, set a Focus Time from 11 a.m. until 12 p.m. When the Internet shuts off, everyone knows it’s time for a break. Have lunch together, and then give them the chance to choose their break activity.

Give yourself a break There is a lot of pressure between balancing your kids’ academics and your own responsibilities. You need a break too. Set aside a time during the day (or in the evening) to indulge in whatever it is that helps you get away from the day’s stimulation. And don’t forget, limiting screen time an hour before bed is just as good for your REM cycle as it is for your kids’.

Developing Online and Offline Reading Habits

Because school is happening at home this year, it’s inevitable that kids are going to be reading more online. That means it will be even more important for kids to develop good offline reading habits to create a balance between screen time and real life.

Learn what works by observing your kids

Not all kids learn in the same way. Some kids may be visual learners while the others are auditory. When you’re trying out a mix of both physical texts and online reading, watch how your kids are responding. Is one method grabbing their attention more than the other? Maybe one subject is easier for your kid to read on a tablet than in a book. The beauty of at-home learning is that you get to customize the way your kids are learning.

Do online reading in the morning

Because blue light may hinder the production of melatonin and mess with REM sleep, try moving online reading to the earlier part of the day to avoid screens closer to bedtime. Reserve physical textbooks for later in the school day.

Help your kids develop offline learning skills

Not every activity has to be directly related to a homework assignment or test preparation to be considered “learning.” Your kids can develop learning skills offline in fun ways too! The main thing to remember is, if they’re engaged and thinking, they’re learning.

Remember board games? Some of them can be fun and educational. Monopoly teaches kids about money management, card games can develop critical thinking skills, as well as teaching kids how to win and lose graciously. Playing games together as a family creates an opportunity to bond, offline.

A few other ideas to pose as offline learning options for your kids are:

  • Crafts

  • Journaling

  • Learning an instrument

  • Drawing or painting

  • Science experiments

Switch to studying textbooks

Pause the Internet® and move on to real textbooks. Studies show that reading builds white matter, which helps communication within the brain. That means, if the brain was a muscle, reading real books would act as a work out for your kids’ brains and build new muscle over time.

Recent studies also show that students from elementary school to college tend to absorb more when they’re reading on paper than on screens, particularly when it comes to nonfiction material.

You may find that reading physical books helps avoid distractions. Afterall, when kids are reading on screens that have full access to the Internet, they’re only a couple of clicks away from YouTube.

Get better books

When it comes to developing a love of reading, a good book goes a long way. Encourage the “no screens an hour before bedtime” rule by asking the family to all take time to read for fun before bed instead of watching TV. This list of entertaining books is a great place to start searching and has a mix of options for all ages.

The Effects of Technology Use and Academic Performance

If your kids are using screens most of the day for online learning, technologies like social media, TV, and video games should be limited in order to create a safe, healthy balance.

Here’s what you need to know in order to understand the effects of each of these entertainment-based technologies on your kids’ academic capabilities.

How social media, video games, and TV affect academics

Distance learning and entertainment screen time don’t have the same effect on kids. Online learning challenges the brain, whereas online entertainment like social media, video games, or TV are stimulating the brain.

Be on the lookout for these things when considering if your kids are getting too much screen time between school and entertainment:

  • Addiction “Virtually all games and social media work on what’s called a variable reward system, which is exactly what you get when you go to pull a lever on a slot machine,” says Dr. Michael Rich. “It balances the hope that you’re going to make it big with a little bit of frustration, and unlike the slot machine, a sense of skill needed to improve.” Technology addiction can sneak up quickly. One solution is setting healthy limits on the extra screen time entertainment.
  • Overstimulation If your kids are interacting with many forms of technology throughout the day, you may start to notice warning signs of overstimulation. Are they unable to focus when you’re asking them questions? Do they seem “wired but tired”? Or unmotivated? It’s probably time to start adding more limitations around screen time.

The Benefits of Circle in Online Learning

Online learning is a solution to a problem right now, but it could be here to stay for some families. One thing is certain, it’s more important now than ever before to monitor and limit screen time in the process. Circle’s Parental Controls can help you do that.

A healthy balance between screen time and school time

Circle allows you to set healthy screen time limits for your kids while they’re on devices for education and more.

Circle Time Limits lets parents customize each kid’s profile to set daily limits on apps, websites, and categories.

When it’s time for a break or to get outside, Focus Time allows parents to carve out specific windows for kids to step away from screens and enjoy moments IRL. Focus Times can be customized and preset for specific days and times, making it a powerful time management tool to encourage better balance during this wonky school year, online and off.

When your kids head off to their rooms for bed, you can almost guarantee those phones or tablets are coming back out. Circle’s Bedtime feature helps parents set consistent lights-out times to avoid all-night Internet binges. Like Focus Time, Bedtime can be set up based on weekdays and weekends.

This school year may be unlike any other, but you don’t have to tackle the balance of screen time for school and screen time for play alone. Circle can help.