Back to School Q&A with the Authors of The Connected Parent


Covid-19 has raised unique back-to-school concerns for parents, particularly around the effectiveness of remote learning. Wondering what you can do to help your child adapt? And just how toxic is all this screen time? John Palfrey and Urs Gasser have answers.


There are a lot of hurdles when adjusting to remote learning. There are the potential social aspects—anxiety about the pandemic, separation from classmates and teachers—as well as the technological issues of finding the right platform (Google Classrooms, Zoom, etc.) and potentially unreliable computer and internet access. Will children fall behind with remote learning?

Not necessarily, no. Remote learning can work quite well in many instances and for many kids. It’s also not a new practice for many teachers; for instance, we have taught online together for nearly twenty years.

There are a few big things to look out for. Access issues are a big one. For instance, in Chicago this past spring, estimates showed that nearly one in five learners did not have the tools they needed for remote learning. Obviously, a student who cannot access remote learning will fall behind. We must close these access gaps everywhere, especially those places that are relying on remote learning.

Another major issue is motivation. When teachers use asynchronous methods in particular, there is a big risk that some kids will simply fail to engage with the material. That’s always a risk, but it’s a bigger one with asynchronous online learning. Teachers have to work especially hard to keep engagement and motivation up for learners. Interaction with other kids can help a lot. And parents can play a big role to play in supporting the learning for their kidsalthough we’re very aware that this is not always possible given the circumstances.


What can parents do to help support their child during this time of incredible change, not just with remote learning, but with the broader consequences of growing up in an increasingly digital world?

Parents often think that their kids are pushing awaywhich they arebut miss the big role that we still need to play, all the way through adolescence (and possibly beyond). And recall, adolescence now starts earlier and runs longer, well into their twenties according to most experts on the brain and child development. So, first off, don’t abdicate too soon. You have a big role to play!

When it comes to the digital world, that means engaging on issues related to their life in the digital realm as well as the “offline” world. The two are deeply interconnected for them, even if you might think of the world as separated into “online” and “offline” still. Things that they do and say online are just as important and real as those things that they do and say on the street or in someone’s home. You need to come up to speed with the tools they are using and be able to be relevant, credible, and conversant. It’s not as hard as you may think, but it does take work.


Children seem to be spending more time on screens than ever before—even outside of virtual classrooms—and that trend seems likely to continue as we head into fall. Parents working from home are feeling terrible guilt about the amount of recreational screen time their children have, but is there really reason for concern? Is all this screen time actually harmful?

This is a big misnomer. All the major studies of screen time show that the use of screens is on a continuous rise for tweens and teens. All the serious studies also show that for most children, a moderate amount of screen time is actually a positive, not a negative, in their lives. There are extremes to be sure. And parents need to be aware of the ways in which excessive gaming and screen time can be symptoms and drivers of deeper problems.

Overall, parents should not worry so much about the amount of time and focus more on the quality of the screen time, putting activities in context for young people, and connecting around what they are learning and doing. The terrible guilt can go! And then the real work of connecting with and supporting your kids can get underway in earnest.


John Palfrey is president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and a former faculty director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. He previously served as head of school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.

Urs Gasser is executive director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and a professor of practice at Harvard University. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.