It has been a year since Hong Kong children were plunged into remote learning and virtual classrooms as a result of the coronavirus pandemic . My primary-school-aged daughter and her friends were initially introduced to instant messaging to allow direct contact with teachers and classmates to ask questions about lessons being delivered over Zoom and on Google slides. But what began as a way to support home learning quickly turned into a tool for isolated children who were missing their friends and the social interaction of physical school. Long after the school day was over, the online chats continued. Soon, my daughter was messaging with a proficiency and frequency which belied her age. This is why it comes as no surprise that bullying in Hong Kong schools has hit a 10-year high despite physical classes having been suspended for so long. Youth concern group Hong Kong Playground Association, told the Post it believes many of the cases would have been cyberbullying, a fair conclusion given students have had unprecedented access to online tools without the maturity or cognitive ability to handle them. The group called for schools and parents to step up their vigilance to stem the spread of cyberbullying. But this is far easier said than done. The pandemic has opened a Pandora’s box when it comes to children and the digital world. As a parent, trying to handle this has felt like being caught in a typhoon with only a 7-Eleven umbrella for shelter. I had expected to have a few more years before I had to deal with helping her navigate the etiquette of the online world and the pitfalls of this type of social interaction. To say I was ill-prepared is an understatement, as I suspect was the case for many other parents. Hong Kong must get tough on bullying to stop failing its children The Education Bureau has emphasised that it takes a “zero tolerance” approach to bullying and will be funding anti-bullying programmes this year. In the case of my daughter’s school, digital citizenship was part of the curriculum while the children were learning at home. But it was hard for primary school pupils to put into practice what they were being taught and I welcomed the decision by my daughter’s school to ultimately restrict access to internal messaging. There is no doubt that some of the explosion in the use of online messaging and gaming came as our kids tried to compensate for feelings of loneliness and a lack of social interaction. A Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs Association survey found Hong Kong’s children are the unhappiest they have been in at least five years. But while the online world may have provided a short-term antidote to isolation and loneliness, the long-term negative impact cannot be ignored. Increased screen time has been linked to obesity, vision problems and sleeplessness. Social media use specifically has been shown to increase anxiety in young people. Ironically during this time, for adults, working from home appears to have been an overwhelmingly positive experience. Many companies have been able to maintain productivity with team meetings via Hangouts or Zoom and instant messaging as ways for colleagues to connect quickly and efficiently. Why I’d be happy to work from home post-pandemic, and I’m not alone Employees have relished an escape from the rat race of the daily commute. Employers, now it has been established that the absence of a physical office does not spell the end of productivity, are able to look at cuts in office costs in an economy battered by the pandemic. We have loved it so much apparently that Hong Kong adults do not want it to end. Two out of three Hongkongers want remote work options to remain and 65 per cent of corporate leaders say they will redesign their office space around a hybrid office/work-from-home culture. But while we have benefited from the technologies which have kept the corporate wheels turning, what has been the price for Hong Kong’s children? Physical classes may be resuming , but the virtual world and our children’s often unsupervised presence in it remains. It is time to ensure our kids get a digital detox – we owe it to them. Melissa Stevens is the Post’s Digital Editor. Lunar is the SCMP’s women’s readership initiative which aims to celebrate and elevate women’s voices in Asia.