As restrictions relax, time to prioritize the younger generation

Arecent study into the impact of social-distancing measures and school closures on Hong Kong children revealed depressing yet unsurprising results: They moved less, slept badly and had excessively long screen time.

This persisted even when schools partially reopened. The message is clear: Our children have suffered, and we need to fix this.

Technology is now an intrinsic part of our lives, but for young people, whose brains and personalities are still growing and forming, it’s no substitute for school and human interaction. Even government pandemic adviser Lau Yu-lung noted, “Without schooling, … everyone would lose their social skills.” Hong Kong children are into their fourth academic year of disrupted schooling, and for primary schools, still on half-days, there is seemingly no end in sight.

During those interminable months of online learning, I noticed a new subject in my son’s timetable: digital tech. It involved a mix of coding and online safety skills, the sort of lesson that previously didn’t exist. But now, as health psychologist Sarah Snuggs told me: “We live in a world where using the internet, for many people, is an essential part of functioning in life. It offers social support, education and entertainment. But there are health and psychological risks associated with what we call ‘problematic internet usage’. This is increasing in young people and is associated with too much sedentary behavior and decreased psychological well-being. Healthy internet usage is key.”

So I was surprised when school restarted and this subject disappeared from the timetable. Surely it’s necessary? What has changed? In fact, the change was that children were in school. There was no stand-alone subject; instead, technology and digital skills were being used throughout and in context. Because, when it comes to technology and the internet, schools or, perhaps more importantly, teachers and their interaction with the children are vital.

Snuggs adds, “Young people need to understand how to use and enjoy the internet safely, what to do if they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation and to feel safe enough in their offline environment to avoid overreliance on internet activities and life.”

My neighbor’s teenage daughter loves online beauty hacks, making face scrubs from kitchen ingredients and sharing tips with friends. It’s harmless and fun but things can easily slip into not-so-harmless — when the comments on your photos start to become mean or bullying. There is something about the online world, the anonymity it allows, that can embolden the bullies. It can creep into all our spaces — our bedrooms, our pockets, and we need to ensure kids are equipped to deal with these situations. This comes from experience in the real world and interacting with others. Snuggs says, “The specific challenges around online bullying include the fact that it is so much harder to spot sometimes. Cyber safety teaching in schools is crucial.”

Dion Chen, principal of Ying Wa College, told a radio program, “School life is not only for gaining knowledge; (pupils) need time to build their social network and how to communicate with others and develop their skills and talent in sports, music and other areas.”

The pandemic entrenched technology in our lives as never before, but it is now incumbent on us to provide children with the ability to live not a life at home in front of a screen, but one that is rounded, with options: to be outdoors, to socially interact and have the choices that young people should have.

Professor Lau also noted this gap in children’s lives: “If full-day classes are offered, (schools) will have more space and time to host other extracurricular activities”. This lack of activities, of life beyond the screen, is perhaps where children have missed out the most.

Mr Chen added that the importance of schools “is (also) about managing their mental health and mentoring them …students, in these few years, under the pandemic, are having a great challenge (with) their mental health.”

Another worrying survey, carried out by the Hong Kong Lutheran Social Service, showed that young people are scared to take off their masks around friends and even socialize with others. And with the youth suicide rate hitting a historic high last year, the impact of school disruptions and social distancing on the special administrative region’s young can no longer be ignored.

As we start to navigate away from COVID-19 isolation, we must prioritize the young. This is the moment for the government to seize the opportunity; change the narrative, and rewrite this story to a good one. Policymakers have the power to make an important impact: restore the full school day to all children, put an end to arbitrary class suspensions, and create opportunities.

Every COVID-19 restriction in place should be assessed for its necessity. Camping sites shut? Their reopening would make a huge difference to people’s well-being. Let our young people be outside in numbers greater than twelve and see each other’s faces under the masks.

We need to rebuild a healthy society where they have options and can grow in confidence. There could be so many good Hong Kong stories to tell if decisions are made to allow them to come to fruition — Hong Kong had its best-ever Olympics last year, these things don’t happen by chance, so let Hong Kong create more sporting heroes, or chefs, artists and musicians, ballet dancers or architects. Make it as easy as possible for extracurricular activities to happen — whether that’s sports, arts, drama, chess, music, or even coding and computers.

Because when you’re young, the world is full of potential, especially if you are fortunate to live somewhere where opportunities are possible. But youth only comes once, and like the movie character Ferris Bueller said in the 1986 movie, “Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” So don’t let these kids miss this time in their lives.

The author is a freelance journalist now based in Hong Kong, after living and working in London for 17 years. She was born and raised in Hong Kong and has postgraduate degrees in Chinese studies and journalism.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.