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5th November 2020

Zoom has become everything, but is online learning a danger to us all?

Amelia Cummins discusses how increased screen time due to online learning is negatively affecting student health and wellbeing
Zoom has become everything, but is online learning a danger to us all?
Photo: Alexas_Fotos @ Pixabay

Gone are the days of cramped lecture halls and stuffy tutorial rooms. Of strolling across campus and enjoying long lunches with friends. The new reality of online learning consists solely of staring at a screen. Whether it be for classes, homework, socials, or downtime, our whole lives now centre around our electronic devices. Here’s how my day goes: 

9 AM: Zoom seminars, preferably camera off.

12 PM: Some readings, not with an actual book, of course.

1 PM: Lunch and Netflix, please.

2 PM: Lecture videos galore.

5 PM: Online society meeting, but can it still be called a society if it’s no longer social?

6 PM: Obligatory family Facetime call. 

8 PM: Dinner time with a side of Amazon Video.

12 AM: Time to lay in bed, begging for sleep.

From our eyes turning square to our brains turning to mush, we’ve been warned of the dangers of screen time since childhood.

So with the switch to online learning, we need to explore the possible effects of increased screen time. Can everything really be ok when your daily step count is 200 and your screen time is 12 hours? 

The doctor prescribes a gaze outside your window

Several recent studies suggest there is a link between increased screen time and the incidence of myopia.

Myopia, known as short-sightedness, is a condition that results in distant objects appearing blurry. Increased levels of myopia have also been linked to increased time spent indoors, another consequence of online learning.

When we spend extended periods indoors, our eyes don’t get to practice seeing objects that are far away. So, when presented with faraway objects outside, our eyes are unable to react properly, resulting in myopia. Myopia is a life long, and often expensive, condition. Sufferers need to wear glasses or contact lenses, or sometimes have corrective surgery. 

To protect eyes against myopia, doctors recommend people look away from a screen every 20 minutes. You should look at something at least 6 metres away, preferably outside. However, this is not a practical solution, as it is not always possible when studying.

Furthermore, there is not adequate research to confirm whether this is enough to prevent myopia. 

Blue light is the new sunlight

According to Harvard Medical School, in order for human brains to develop effectively, adequate sleep is required. As the human brain continues to develop until the age of 25, this is a concern for many students.

A 2019 paper collated studies on the link between screen habits and sleep. It found that 90% of these studies discovered an association between screen use and decreased sleep time. This link is often the result of blue light.

Blue light emitted from screens can severely disrupt sleep, especially if used within a few hours of going to bed. Blue light blocks production of the sleep hormone melatonin, preventing people from feeling tired.

This particularly hinders deep REM sleep. REM sleep is the most important type of sleep, as it is during this period that information is processed and stored into memory. This means that the many hours spent studying could be for nothing if it leads to a lack of sleep. However, with heavy workloads and social lives that revolve around screens, having a break from blue light before bed is often impossible for students. 

When you have nowhere to go and no one to see

But it is not only online learning that contributes to our increased screen time.

With strict restrictions on our movements, the average student is spending most of their time at home. Even if you adhere to government recommendations and spend an hour a day exercising, you are still missing out on the everyday movement that comes with having a life beyond your bedroom. No more walking around town, standing on the bus or climbing up the library stairs. This increase in a sedentary lifestyle puts us all at risk of obesity. This could lead to obesity-related illnesses, which could stick around far past lockdown. 

Another possible health impact of online learning is vitamin D deficiency. Our skin produces vitamin D in the presence of sunlight. A deficiency of it can lead to serious conditions, such as osteomalacia. If we are spending our time online, we aren’t going to get enough sunlight, and therefore won’t produce enough vitamin D.

The NHS has responded to concerns about increased vitamin D deficiency during lockdown by advising the public to take vitamin D supplements daily. This suggests that this is a serious health implication of COVID restrictions.

Anyone fancy a Zoom night in?

While remaining inside, students often turn to their screens to fill their free-time too, further increasing their screen time. Studies show humans need a diverse range of offline and online experiences in order to live a balanced and fulfilled life. According to Harvard University, screens provide inadequate stimulation to the brain, when compared to active, social moments. Therefore, prolonged time spent staring at a screen, from watching TV to scrolling through social media, can result in feelings of dissatisfaction and despair.

Furthermore, only being able to see friends and family through a screen can lead to feelings of loneliness, isolation and anxiety. 

And with bated breath, data we await

It is difficult to know the extent of long-term effects of increased screen time, as online learning, and screens themselves, are relatively new. However, as online learning becomes commonplace, more research will be conducted. 

Is this all just conjecture and online learning will soon become a forgotten memory? Or will we be increasingly reliant on screens, and suffering the consequences for years to come? 

Only time will tell. 

Any students at the University of Manchester struggling with mental health can access support through the university here, or contact Nightline here.

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