Learning and living amidst a Pandemic: Using digital Media responsibly

Boy with a PC keyboard
Photo: C. Fischer

Almost 11 million schoolchildren throughout Germany have been working in their “home office” since mid-March. For a major part of them, learning during the coronavirus pandemic takes place within their own four walls, isolated from their classmates. Digital media are frequent companions during tuition and leisure time. The young people first have to learn to use them responsibly – not only in the current exceptional situation. Screen-free times included.

Most of the households in Germany have the full technical equipment: Their basic setup will usually contain TV, Internet, cell phone, and lots more. In that respect, television still constitutes the most popular leisure time activity, for both parents and their children. The 6-13-year-olds alone sit in front of the TV for around 70 to 90 minutes every day. Not to mention the time spent using their smartphones or the game console, which around half of this age group already calls its own.

Since the educational institutions are closed throughout the country, in order to curb the pandemic, the role of screen media has been taking on increasing significance in everyday life. A rising number of school lessons are now being held over the Internet, using laptop, webcam and microphone. Thus, “school cloud”, online seminars and digital learning platforms have meanwhile become a daily routine for most young people. Then, there is the fact that children and young people are, to an increasing extent, having to occupy themselves at home, so that the grownups can comply with their professional obligations. It is not uncommon, in such a scenario, for the use of the computer and the consumption of video games to get out of hand, in the process. For the digital options offered by the entertainment industry and the education sector entice young people to make constant use of the facilities available, and, for many parents, at first glance constitute a would-be help.

“Such a screen experience can never replace social interaction with a real partner, such as the teacher or parent”, says Prof. Dr. Paula Bleckmann. The Doctor in Biology and Waldorf teacher has, since 2015, been tenured Professor of Media Education at the Alanus University of Arts and Social Sciences in Alfter in the Bonn area. Through her many years’ experience of research and consultancy work on the topic of “responsible media use”, the mother of three is aware of the opportunities and risks of modern technology, which can, precisely, have a very different effect on younger children than on adults. “An inner maturity, a consolidated personality and the ability to engage in critical self-reflection is necessary to be able to handle the present-day media independently and appropriately", states Prof. Dr. Bleckmann. And that also includes being able to switch off the device at the right time. In this connection, the tenured professor advises that a regular daily structure and fixed rituals that are complied with by both children and parents should bindingly be adhered to – precisely in the case of this new, unusual daily routine. For it is much more important than virtual experience, according to Dr. Bleckmann, to plan in regular family times, such as going for a walk together and moving about in the fresh air, or reading, doing handicrafts and playing.

In her current research project on “Media Education at Reformed Pedagogic Educational Institutions”, Bleckmann – independently of the coronavirus – is developing alternative kindergarten and school concepts, which can get by without digital media. Together with educationalists, parents and children, practical approaches for the future are formulated to deal with the issue. “The comprehensive qualification of specialists and the establishment of a model for working with parents on media education are very much a key concern”, comments Prof. Dr. Dirk Randoll. The educationalist is Project Manager at the Darmstadt institution Software AG Foundation (SAGST), which is focused on supporting the three-year plan created, as well as other scientific investigations in this field. “Suitable methodology, appropriate to the age group in question, should assist children and young people in learning to genuinely master the media”, states Randoll. This can be done by showing them ways of learning which enable them to actively handle media and remain in control of it. That also included being able to weigh up the benefits and potential risks associated with digitalization against one another, and not lose sight of the human being as a whole, with all his or her abilities, empathy and creativity.

Information on how parents can design the time spent with the family in a healthy way during the coronavirus crisis, and in the sense of aiming at “responsible media use”, is given by a consortium of eight child welfare organizations on its website. This also gives interested parties the opportunity to subscribe to a newsletter that provides a lot of practical tips for everyday family life. The newsletter is dispatched by „ECHT DABEI – gesund groß warden im digitalen Zeitalter” (“GET REAL – Growing up healthily in the digital age”), the prevention program for kindergartens and elementary schools created by Prof. Dr. Paula Bleckmann.