Advice to parents on maximizing privacy & minimizing screen time while your child’s school is closed

For the millions of parents whose children’s schools are closed, here is some advice on trying to minimize the risks from your children’s overuse of screens, and to maximize their privacy if they are using ed tech apps.


Many ed tech programs are neither private nor secure; they collect and share children’s personal data, often without your knowledge or consent.  This 2018 US Dept of Ed guidance has said that schools cannot require parents to agree to the terms of online apps or programs if they violate federal privacy law.   Ransomware, hacking, and identity theft also increase when using online programs, as the FBI has warned .  Generally,  your child’s data can only be used only for educational purposes, and the app’s privacy and terms of services should clearly say this.

For more specific advice on  what federal student privacy law requires and red flags to look for in reading a privacy policy,  check out our Parent Toolkit for Student Privacy.   Teachers should consult our Educator Toolkit .  If you sign your children up for an online program,  better to use one that does not require you to create an account or offer any personal information.  If you must, use an alternative email address  for the that you can later delete, and do not provide any personal information  that you would not like shared with others.

Many schools  and colleges are using Zoom.  Be aware that EPIC filed a privacy complaint against Zoom for intentionally allowing web cameras to be operated without users’ knowledge or consent.  You might consider keeping a band aid or other removable sticker on your computer’s web camera until you or your child intends to use it.  Its standard privacy policy, according to Future of Privacy Forum, allows targeted advertising, which violates FERPA and many state student privacy laws.  UPDATE:  Jitsi has been recommended to me to use for video conferencing; it’s free, open source and doesn’t require you make an account first .

When considering applications and tools for remote online learning, you can also check out the privacy reviews of specific apps and programs on Common Sense Media or the AppCensus, which analyzes Android apps.

Limits on screen time

World Health Organization guidelines  advise that children aged between the ages of 2 and 5 should be limited to no more than an hour of screen time per day. Older kids are not immune to health risks: myopia, sleep loss, screen addiction, ADHD and more have been linked to excessive screen use.  The more  time teenagers spend on computers and social media has also been correlated with higher rates of depression.

Some experts advise two hours of screen time maximum per day for the oldest kids, with frequent breaks; including blocks of time where they can chat online with their teacher or classmates.

In truth however, many children do not have access to devices and broadband to make online instruction a practical reality, and there is growing consensus that  it is NOT an effective educational method.  Most students enrolled in online schools actually regress in terms of learning.  More reasons why we are skeptical of online learning in general are explained in this NPE guide, What Every Parent Should Know about Online Learning.

Alternatives to online learning

In my opinion and that of some teachers I have consulted, rather than having your children sit at computers to do schoolwork would be to for their teachers to send them homework in written form, if possible.  Or you could purchase workbooks.

Personally, I have found Singapore math workbooks to be excellent.  As for reading, you could ask your children to choose a book to read for one half hour to an hour every day, depending on their age, and ask them to write something about what they’re reading or keep a diary of their time spent during this period.

As long as they maintain “social distancing”, take your children go outside every day or have them exercise inside.  Put on some music and dance! 

Try not to worry if your kids aren’t spending much time studying.  Don’t be concerned about the state tests either. The US Department of Education has issued guidance that states and districts where schools are closed for long periods can submit applications to waive or postpone their mandated tests this year.

For more screen-free ideas and updates, check out the advice from the Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood  Liat Olenick, NYC teacher, has provided valuable ideas on Twitter on how teachers and schools can support families during extended periods of closure.