Home learning pressure
Webcam anxiety is affecting the UAE's kids Image Credit: Shutterstock

The moon-like faces of my two little boys glow eerily in the blue light of their tablets one foggy Dubai morning, as we commence yet another week of distance learning.

This is what school has looked like for kids all over the world for the best part of a year in 2020 and 2021: Solitary, silent and screen-led.

Rather than darting about in the playground with his friends, my youngest son, 4, is bobbing his head in and out of visibility on his class registration Zoom call - flicking the camera on and off and generally being bit of a pain for his teacher.

“Put your camera on please Rafe,” his teacher’s world-weary voice crackles out from the iPad speakers, “I need to be able to see you.”

This, I suppose, is what disruptive classroom behaviour looks like in 2020 and 2021 – although in this version I am sitting just across from him at the dining table and able to tell him to stop messing about.

But it’s not the silly behaviour that really has me worried about my four-year-old son. It’s the anxiety that I’ve also noticed creeping in. The 3am wake-ups when he comes storming into our room in a panic because he touched his nose in his sleep and “might have the germs”. And the strange, up-and-down, emotionally charged relationship he now has with video chatting and the web cam.

‘A daily form of torture’

Home learning has created a generation of children with webcam-related anxiety. While distance learning has been a lifeline for many schools during the pandemic and is regarded as the closest alternative to being physically in the classroom, the associated use of webcams – often mandatory – can exacerbate anxieties, particularly for children with existing mental health issues.

Although most young people engage well with virtual teaching, Mandeep Jassal, Behavioural Therapist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai, is keen to highlight how this is not always the case. “For some students it can feel like a daily form of torture, significantly increasing their anxiety levels and negatively impacting their self-confidence and self-esteem,” she says.

For my little boy, it manifested as a meltdown a few months ago, during which he shed torrents of tears and ran screaming from the iPad to cower under the table because he said he felt “too nervous” to attend his best friend’s online Zoom party.

As silly as this might seem from the outside – all he was expected to do is be one of 10 or so of the pixelated boxes watching his friend cut his birthday cake – for generation COVID, virtual attendance isn’t the sub-standard approximation of real-life that we might view it to be. For kids who’ve started school online, reached formative developmental milestones while distance learning, or who’ve only ever known their grandparents as pixels through a screen, the online world is just as real as the offline one – and comes with all the same potential pitfalls.

“It can be difficult for younger children in particular to interact in large group calls when children are all trying to communicate and end up speaking over each other,” says Tanya Dharamshi, Clinical Director and Counselling Psychologist at The Priory in Dubai. “It can also make them feel self-conscious when speaking and everyone is looking at them.”

A fear of being judged by others for how we look, and feeling the need to appear “perfect” can be common anxieties when faced with a webcam, adds Dharamshi: “We are also guilty of judging ourselves in the same way, and how we are perceived is an area where we benchmark our self-esteem and a sense of ourselves. Being on a web camera is a bit like standing up in front of an audience, but it is slightly more challenging as we do not have the ability to read the audiences’ body language like we do if we were physically in the same space. If we are comfortable with ourselves, being in front of a web camera has less of an impact.”

Hitting teens the hardest

It’s even worse for teenagers, says behavioural therapist Jassal, “Many of whom are naturally searching for a sense of identity through their appearance, and how they come across to others.”

In an era where there is so much emphasis on image, a webcam can be regarded as a means of magnifying a child’s insecurities and awkwardness to every peer in their class, adds Jassal: “As a result, they may become even more self-conscious about their behaviour – scrutinising everything about themselves, even down to how they sit and move on camera.”

It can even impact their grades, she says. “This can cause them to refrain from asking questions or actively participating in online lessons through a fear of drawing attention to themselves and of getting answers wrong. Over time, they will withdraw more and more, which has the potential to affect their learning and grades.”

This is something that Greg, a secondary school maths teacher in Dubai who asked to remain anonymous, has noticed with some of his classes – and is the reason that he chooses not to make his students put their cameras on (although it is mandatory in many schools). “The secondary school kids I teach are generally more worried about their image and as a result can be less likely to contribute for fear of being judged. I don’t make my students put their cameras on, even though some teachers might, because I find the cameras can be a distraction – both for them and for me.”

How to help younger children with web cam anxiety

Counselling psychologist Tanya Dharamshi shares the following tips for parents of younger children who are displaying signs of anxiety around video calls:

  • To help a younger child with this, start off by being kind and compassionate, rather than frustrated
  • If they are nervous, explore the feeling with them. Develop a ladder or scale system with them and ask them to put their nervousness on the ladder with 10 being the most nervous and 1 being the least nervous
  • Try calls on a smaller scale and with fewer children so everyone speaks with each other not over each other
  • Ensure your child is getting outside and having physical activity away from the screen
  • Make the call interactive and engage in games that require their involvement

How parents  can help older kids and teens with web cam anxiety

If having the webcam or mic on is causing anxiety for a young person with mental health conditions, Mandeep provides the following advice for both teachers and parents:

  1. Acknowledge their feelings and highlight how many others will be experiencing the exact same concerns and worries.
  2. Resist the urge to intervene or “save” them mid-lesson if you notice them feeling uncomfortable, this will only embarrass them and make any issues more obvious to others.
  3. Highlight how most of their peers will be too busy concentrating on their own work or preoccupied with their own concerns and image, rather than focusing on them.
  4. For those feeling particularly overwhelmed, inform the teacher or school privately. Discuss potential options with them, such as only having the webcam on in certain lessons or allowing them gradual webcam exposure. For example, begin by having the webcam on just during the registration and overview of the lesson, and then build on extending this time period over the coming weeks as they start to feel more comfortable and relaxed.
  5. Parents can put in place simple strategies to help build their child’s self-confidence and self-esteem – give praise for any achievements and be sure to always acknowledge them, no matter how big or small. Refrain from making any negative comments and try role-playing those situations they find particularly anxiety-provoking.
  6. Encourage both the student and teacher to use the ‘private chat’ function. Here they can liaise about the work, encourage questions and check understanding, away from the eyes of others.
  7. Allow anxious students to express themselves in their own time and way – placing them in stressful situations online, such as asking them ‘rapid fire’ questions will only make the situation worse.
  8. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be very helpful for children who are really struggling and whose anxiety is having a significant impact on their day-to-day functioning.
3 Ways kids can help themselves
1. Develop a hierarchy where 0 is no anxiety and 10 is the highest anxiety imaginable. Start with those situations that give low levels anxiety before building yourself up to the next steps through setting achievable and realistic goals.

2. Use positive affirmations and display them around your room or house. For example, “I have got through it before, and I can again” and “This feeling is only temporary and will pass”.

3. Consider what you would say to support a friend in this situation. Try and apply that same tone and compassion towards yourself. Remember being on a virtual lesson is just one, small aspect of your life that makes you a human being. There are so many other unique aspects to who you are – whether it’s sports that you enjoy and are good at, or your sense of humour. Try to keep things in perspective.

Importantly, online-learning via tele-conferencing platforms can actually assist in ‘checking in’ on students from a health and wellbeing point of view, according to Mandeep.

“Studies have shown that 93% of communication is non-verbal, with body-language cues vital for helping to assess and monitor our mental health,” she added. “So, being able to see a student, to make eye contact with them and regard their expressions, behaviour and mannerisms is key. While this method is not as effective as seeing people in the flesh, it can still prove valuable in helping to recognise many issues, which may otherwise go unnoticed in these unprecedented times.”