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I noticed recently that my sixth grader has been turning her webcam off during remote learning. I think she turns it on at the beginning of class and then quickly turns it off. Should I be worried? How much does it matter? I don’t really want to force her to turn it on, but what do you recommend I do?

Shy in Chicago

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Rameisha Johnson

Rameisha “Ramie” Johnson is a New Orleans native, proud mom, and veteran school counselor and enrollment advisor. When she’s not educationally supporting families or her own children, she is making jewelry and other odds and ends.

Dear Shy,

This is such a good question, and it’s something that’s happening in a lot of remote classrooms this year. I’ve actually experienced this with my own daughter, who prefers to keep her webcam off sometimes too.

Here’s the bottom line: For teachers, it is useful to have the cameras on. When your child’s webcam is on, her teacher can gauge her engagement with the material, see if she looks stumped or confused, and get “feedback” (via facial expressions) in real-time during the lesson. Remote teaching is really hard to do well. It’s even harder for teachers when they’re looking at a screen full of blank Zoom icons. It’s why some teachers actually require everyone to keep their cameras on.

That said, a lot of students have valid reasons to want to leave their cameras off. For some students, there might be concern over showing classmates and teachers what’s going on in their homes—maybe they think their house looks messy, or there are other siblings in view. They might find it embarrassing, for example, if they feel that their classmates have “nicer” remote work spaces than they do.

Other students might feel self-conscious about how they look on video. And still others might just prefer to turn the camera off so they can zone out without making it too obvious.

I’d start by trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on for your daughter. Ask her why she’s turning the camera off. (Maybe she’ll just tell you!) It might be worth observing her more closely for a day or two if you can, to try to get a sense of what’s what’s going on. Take notes if you need to, so you can remember what you saw and talk through it with her.

Let her know why there’s value in turning her camera on: It makes it easier for her teacher to see how she’s doing in class. It may help her connect with classmates, too. Ask her what might help her feel more confident turning the camera on. Would she like help sprucing up her work space, so her classmates see something different behind her? Does she need more time in the morning to “get ready” for school, and if so, could you help her make that happen?

If her real-life background is making her feel self-conscious and there’s no way to change it, there are lots of cool Zoom backgrounds she can use instead. By turning on an alternative background, her classmates will be looking at her sitting in a coffee shop, or on a beach (jealous!), or in a library, instead of in your house. If she’s using Google Classroom, she can use the “blur” feature to make her background look a little hazy (and artsy).

If those things don’t help, consider going for a compromise: Perhaps she turns her camera on only for certain parts of class (like group discussions) or on certain days of the week, as long as this is in line with her classroom requirements. And of course, if you’re concerned that there could be something more serious underlying her resistance—for example, that she might be experiencing bullying with her camera on—it’s important to connect with her teachers.

Middle school is such a challenging time for self-consciousness, whether we’re in person or on Zoom. Hopefully, by reminding your daughter that you’re there for her and offering to help her problem-solve, you’ll be able to get to the bottom of her webcam hesitation together. If you aren’t, though, don’t hesitate to ask her teachers for support.

“When your child’s webcam is on, her teacher can gauge her engagement with the material, see if she looks stumped or confused, and get “feedback” (via facial expressions) in real-time during the lesson.”