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Digital habits for virtual learning

28 Apr 2020

Many private schools have opted for ‘distance learning’ or ‘virtual learning’ as a way of enabling students to access learning activities at home during the COVID-19 outbreak. While many parents have been appreciative and grateful for the ongoing input and support from their schools, several have raised concerns about their children spending more time than usual in front of screens.

Children can experience many of the same symptoms related to computer use as adults. These include eye discomfort, fatigue, tiredness, irritated and sore eyes, slowness of focus change, blurred vision and headaches. These may be more prominent in children with eye problems such as shortsightedness. Children may also have difficulty reaching the keyboard or placing their feet on the floor, causing arm, neck or back discomfort.

The following include tips for users of desktop computers and monitors, laptops, tablets, iPads and mobile devices.

– Frequent visual breaks

Reduce the time that a child continuously uses the computer to not more than one hour. Giving a ten-minute break for every hour will minimise the development of eye focus problems and eye irritation. Remember the ‘20-20-20’ rule: Every 20 minutes, encourage your child to take their eyes off the screen and look at something that’s at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds.

Minimise the chances of developing ‘dry eye’ by teaching children to blink frequently (eg blink every time the ‘return’ key is pressed).

If a child has been given prescription glasses, they should wear them as advised by the doctor. Have annual eye check-ups for your child.

– Frequent posture changes and movement breaks

Encourage frequent posture checks. The time taken to follow the ‘20-20-20’ rule is also a good time to sit up straight and realign the head, neck and shoulders, walk around a bit and stretch. Also, children should be reminded to stay well hydrated and have healthy snack breaks.

– Adequate lighting and appropriate brightness of device

Windows or lamps could create glare on the screen causing eye strain. Therefore, have indirect lighting on the monitor. If the monitor faces a window, change the angle or direction to reduce glare.  Reduce the amount of lighting in the room by using curtains or blinds. Consider changing the background colour of the screen from bright white to cool grey.

– Position of the monitor/ screen

The monitor and the keyboard should be positioned according to the child’s height. If the screen is too high, the child will tilt their head backwards and if too low, will tilt their head and neck forwards. Adjust the screen so it is directly in front of the face and the top of the monitor is slightly below eye level at arm’s length. Keep hand-held devices a safe distance from the eyes and just below eye level. Increase text (font) size if it is very small.

– Appropriate workstation and seating

The desk or table should be spacious and stable. Desk height should ideally be at elbow height. Have a comfortable chair (if possible, height adjustable) with good back support. The child should face the screen directly. Keep enough space for forearms to be rested on the worksurface. Discourage sitting on the edge of the seat. Keyboards should be directly in front and close to the body. If a mouse is used, it should be appropriate in size for the child. Place a footstool, box or pile of cushions to support feet position if the legs are dangling. Use back pillows to maintain back support and posture.

Remember the ‘90-90-90’ rule: When seated, elbows should be bent at about 90° when using a keyboard, hips comfortably bent at 90° with feet resting flat on the floor at 90° or on a footrest.

If a tablet is being used, place a pillow on the child’s lap so they can rest their arms on it and support their tablet in a comfortable position.

Use a tablet stand for smaller devices such as iPad in order to adjust and position on the desk.

– Teach children and young people to recognise the signs of a digital overload

Help them be aware of their own physical reactions and understand when they start to feel tired or get headaches or body aches. Encourage healthy snacks and plenty of water to stay well hydrated. Remind them to take regular movement breaks and look away from the screen.

– Create a ‘time out’ for devices

Screen time extending up to late evenings can interfere with natural sleep cycles, therefore turn off all devices at least one hour before bedtime. Leave them overnight in a place away from the bedroom to avoid temptation. Also, make it a rule to keep devices away during family meal times.

– Try not to use ‘more screen time’ as a reward

In this time of additional screen time already built into their day, it is best to find alternative incentives and rewards, such as choosing the game for family time or choosing their favourite meal. Likewise, it helps to keep the consequences for negative behaviour realistic under these circumstances.

– Be a good role model by following good digital use practices yourself and talk to your child about why these are important

As parents, we should demonstrate good digital behaviour to our children so that they can learn by example. With more parents working from home, this can be an opportunity to model this to your children. Explaining the changes to their ‘regular screen time’ is important because the more they understand the reasons why the more likely they are to make these changes.

– Supporting children with correct usage of the various applications for their learning in order to reduce frustration

Technology is great when it works, but we have all encountered experiences of it failing at crucial times. Feelings of frustration, anxiety and stress may arise during these times, so it is important to ‘check in’ on how your child/children are getting on. Help them ‘set up’ if they need that in the mornings. They may be very used to working in this way at school but remember that it is still very new to them to be doing ‘distance learning’ for this long from home.

– Safety! Safety! Safety!

As always, ensure that your child is safe online and that you are fully aware of the material they can access. Also, always be aware of the school’s online safety policies and procedures.

– Help your children with organisation and with staying motivated

With the current social health measures, it can be very easy to lose sense of time and routines. However, routines can really help children and young people. Having their days planned out and organised will help clear some of the blurry lines at this point. Being motivated to do the learning can be a struggle for many so it is helpful to remind them that this will pass and that they need to be prepared for the next phase of their education.

Compiled by Dr Chitra Sankar (developmental pediatrician, Happy Kid Clinic) and Nadia Sultan (educational psychologist, Inspire Educational Consultancy)

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