Best practices for safe online learning for children: Dr Ramesh Kekunnaya Head, Child Sight Institute, L V Prasad Eye Institute, Hyderabad.

Dr Ramesh

In these COVID times, with lockdown in most places, schools are forced to shift from classroom to online teaching. Classes are conducted through virtual platforms. Homework has become digital. Children are required to spend long hours indoors, focussing on their mobile phone, iPad or laptop. This raises many concerns regarding their long-term health.

Increasing use of electronic gadgets, prolonged near work and lack of daylight exposure can result in progression of myopia or near-sightedness in children. Electronic devices are known to emit short-wavelength blue light, suppressing the hormone melatonin which maintains the circadian rhythm in the body. Prolonged exposure to blue light, especially before their bedtime can cause sleep disturbances in children. Too much screen time can also result in dry eye, headache, stress, anxiety, behavioural and mental issues.

It is important to strike a balance between academic learning via digital technology and good physical, mental and personality development in children. Hence, the restricted use of electronic devices for studying has been advocated by doctors. Certain practices should be followed routinely by teachers and parents to ensure a better lifestyle for children.

The amount of time the child spends using digital devices should be proportionate to the child’s age. While 12 to 16-year-olds can be allowed 8 hours of online study, the hours of screen time for younger children should be restricted to less than 4 hours. Toddlers (younger than 3 years) must be refrained from using any digital device.

Teachers must give appropriate breaks during classes; a short break every 45 minutes and a long break of 1-2 hours during long sessions. Online classes should be scheduled in the morning and afternoon hours only, ensuring that children do not use these devices in the evening and night time.

It is important that the child sits on a straight-backed chair with armrests, with the screen placed about 2 feet away at eye level. This ensures good posture and avoids back and neck problems in future. Larger screen devices like desktop, laptop or TV are preferable. Room lighting should be good and the screen brightness should be optimum. Screen protectors can be used to reduce excessive reflection.

There should be good ventilation in the room. Sitting for long hours directly in front of the fan or air conditioning can cause the eyes to dry up quickly. This adds to the strain. They should be encouraged to consciously blink frequently. An easy method to follow is the 20-20-20 rule, where every 20 minutes, the child should take a 20-second break and look at any object 20 feet away. This will relax the ciliary muscles of the eyes and ease the strain due to prolonged near work. At times, preservative-free lubricating eye drops can be used to ease mild symptoms of dry eye. Also, children who usually wear glasses must continue to wear them during classes.

Also, various ways to reduce screen time can be devised by teachers. Each day, there should be at least one session of physical exercise, yoga, dance class or virtual workout, intercepting the online teaching schedule. This will be fun as well as healthy for children. For homework, they should be encouraged to use their textbooks and notebooks and avoid all digital devices.

Parents must themselves set a good example by staying away from mobile phones and TV as much as possible. They can also develop ‘quality family time’, encouraging children to interact, play games and connect with family members during leisure time. It should be emphasised that the use of electronic gadgets is only during classes and for learning. Children must be taught to accept and acclimatize to these new practices and to follow them effectively.

Children’s health and well-being must be the collective responsibility of families, teachers and doctors. Adapting to changing times, using technology to our advantage, but following safety measures can give a better and healthier life to our children.