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While students are learning remotely, it is vital to look after their health and wellbeing.

I took time over Easter to think about our first completed week of offsite learning and to review the balance that Ivanhoe Girls’ has chosen to take between screen time, guided learning time and independent learning time across the various age ranges of our students.

Much learning takes place with movement around a room, in the outdoors, in small gatherings and in large gatherings. Moving around the School grounds between lessons requires students often to walk up and down stairs and to refocus their eyes on near and distant objects between lessons. 

From personal experience I know how exhausting it is to be in back-to-back online meetings all day. While it may seem like an obvious way to replicate, as close as possible, what would ordinarily be happening in person, it simply isn’t sustainable and nor is it good for our children’s physical health and wellbeing.

I have read several articles that refer to the impact of sustained screen time for children. In her article, Psychologist Dr Katherine Dahlsgaard reminds us of the mental health impact of excessive screen time in general and notes the following tips to parents:

  • Set a limit on daily screen time
  • Encourage your child to spend some of that screen-free time outdoors
  • Establish screen-free zones
  • No screens in the bedroom when it is time for bed.

Dr Ayesha Malik, OD, pediatric optometrist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has talked about the risks to children’s eyes and sleep patterns from too much screen time. She reported that too much time indoors on screens can lead to:

  • nearsightedness as researchers believe that UV light (providing the eyes are protected from intense sunlight) plays an important role in healthy eye development. She notes that the rate of nearsightedness in children has increased dramatically in the past 30 years
  • loss of eye focus flexibility and blurry vision. Gazing at the same distance for an extended time can cause the eye's focusing system to spasm or temporarily "lock up” causing a child's vision to blur when they look away from the screen
  • eye fatigue because eyes get tired with prolonged close-focus attention, especially when the lighting around the screen causes glare and extra eye strain
  • dry and irritated eyes since people of all ages blink far less often when concentrating on a screen which speeds up evaporation of the eye's tear film
  • sleep disruptions since the blue light from computer and device screens, when used in the evening, alters the brain’s sleep rhythms. The brain reads the screen light as “daytime” and shifts the body’s circadian rhythm.

With offsite learning at Ivanhoe Girls’ incorporating a significant amount of online lessons, it is important for students to regularly take breaks, not only to get some exercise, but also to rest their eyes. Dr Malik suggests that every 20 minutes,  students should look away from the screen for 20 seconds and focus on something at least seven metres away, while researchers from the The New England Journal of Medicine remind all of us to blink often when working with prolonged screen time. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests active breaks for children in Prep to Year 12 promoting at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day. They also note that outside play provides a great "workout" for children's vision, giving them a chance to focus at different distances and getting exposure to natural sunlight. A final piece of simple but effective advice to cut down on glare and eye fatigue comes from a study published in the Journal of Clinical Ophthalmology & Research. The research notes that the level of lighting in a room when using a computer or other screen should be roughly half what it would be for other activities such as writing on paper or working on crafts.

I hope you find these tips useful in looking after the health of your children’s eyes as well as making our offsite learning experience as comfortable and sustainable as possible.

Dr Deborah Priest