For a few weeks, bedtime in 2020 for mum Riya Biju involved soothing her 5-year-old daughter Vardha’s ardent pleas to not wake her up to attend "online school".

"She would cry before bed insisting that she doesn’t want to see her teacher on a computer; she wants to go to school," narrates the stay-at-home mum of how much her little girl detested e-learning.

Blame it on the pandemic, but Vardha is one of a generation of school-goers whose foray into the academic world didn’t include backpacks stuffed with books, shiny new pencil cases and the trilling of school bells. Instead of peering at letters on a blackboard, they stumble out of bed and make a beeline for the blue-light of laptop and desktop screens. This is the new normal of education in a Covid-19 riddled world – e-learning.

As schools around the UAE shut their gates in March 2020 to combat the virus’ spread, students and their parents scurried to come to grips with a tech-savvy digital format of schooling. Initially, Dubai-based Hemlata Ailani, like many parents in the country, assumed it was only a stopgap measure. Her daughter Naisha and her friends feted this switch as a fun break, a holiday of sorts from the daily grind of school.

But a year and a half down the road, although hybrid learning has been introduced, many students are still to return to the brick and mortar schools. The initial excitement and buzz surrounding the educational innovation has fallen away and, in its place, exists a palpable sense of digital fatigue.

"Kids were elated at the chance to use iPads and laptops independently," recalls Hemalata. "And we as parents were glad that technology could allow their education to continue uninterrupted."

But now those very same kids sit listless and square-eyed, slumped before screens, yearning for a chance to head back into a real-time classroom and engage with their teachers and peers without the barrier of a screen.

"I miss the time we’d sit in class and chit chat during breaks," laments Naisha Ailani. The grade 8 student at The Indian High School Dubai has begun to feel saturated by using a digital medium to learn – and she isn’t the only one.

Riya’s son Viswajeeth Biju, a 6th grader at Delhi Public School Sharjah, echoes Naisha’s sentiments: "I’m exhausted from e-learning. I’m ready to return to school."

There are a number of causes that play into e-learning fatigue, explains Dr Ateeq Qureshi, Child Psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai and Abu Dhabi: "E-learning is generally much less interactive than learning in the classroom. So, it is more likely to become monotonous and feels tiring."

When digital ennui computes to physical fatigue

Often, that exhaustion makes its presence known with physical symptoms such as eye strain.

In little Vardha’s case, it resulted into painful bloodshot eyes that the ophthalmologist diagnosed as irritation and fatigue from constant exposure to blue light. "Her eyesight is perfect but she now wears anti-glare glasses to reduce the strain."

This fallout of digital learning isn’t surprising considering the average daily screen exposure for kids of Vardha’s age as recommended by the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) is 1-2 hours a day, but she spends a little over that in front of a laptop to attend school online. A 2021 study published in the Journal of American Medical Association tracks a spike in cases of myopia in school-going kids as they settled into e-learning in 2020. Naisha falls into that category, with her eyesight having worsened having had to spend hours peering at online worksheets and notes.

Ophthalmologists worry that we have a myopia epidemic to grapple with, says Dr Qureshi. There are also strong links between increased screen time and obesity, he cautions.

For Sharjah student Viswajeeth, excess exposure to screen time manifests as splitting headaches. "I always have the screen brightness reduced to the lowest," he says. His mum Riya corroborates his struggles by delineating what a school day looks like for him: "Class starts at 7:25am and lasts until 2pm, but Viswajeeth’s energy levels bottom out by 12pm. He’s hungry and cranky and doesn’t have any energy for homework or outdoor playtime in the evening after spending 7 hours a day in front of the laptop. He usually spends an extra 3 hours online for homework as he has to review recorded video lessons."

That’s an average of 10 hours anchored to a screen. "It’s no different to an adult sitting at their desk all day staring at screens and then feeling exhausted," explains Vandana Gandhi, CEO and founder of British Orchard Nursery.

Parents admit that their children’s sleep cycles have taken a hit due to the lack of activity and movement e-learning leads to. "The commute to school and activities in school would tire Naisha out and she had a punctual schedule. Now she sleeps later as kids’ bodies aren’t tired only their minds are."

For 13-year-old Daniel Vinod Thomas, a 9th grader at GEMS Winchester School in Dubai, that mental exhaustion has manifested as a substantial rise in his anxiety. "I never felt that before in school when we had a month of in-person classes, but since studying virtually I’m always worried about exams and studies," he bemoans.

It’s a consequence of constantly being plugged in, says Dr Qureshi. "Children are finding it hard to self-regulate as screen usage for their social and school lives compete for their attention, and the brain remains in a permanent state of activity and often resultant stress."

Out of focus and energy

The constant dread of school work being just a click away is one of the many drawbacks of virtual learning. Daniel confesses that he finds it difficult to concentrate during online lessons because "my brain associates digital devices with video games and entertainment and social media. I get distracted easily."

The impact of excess screen use on memory, learning and cognitive abilities surfaces in the form depression and anxiety in adolescents. In younger kids it’s "hyperactivity and reduced self-regulation leading to challenging behaviours and tantrums," says Dr Qureshi.

Mashaal Naujid and Sheeba Vinod, mums to five-year-olds Hannah and Samuel, respectively, agree.

Both the kindergartners have a tendency to wander away from the screen and get exceptionally fidgety after a point, say their mums.

Dr Qureshi cites a large Canadian study that concluded pre-schoolers with more than 2-hours of screen-time per day had a 7·7-fold increased risk of ADHD.

Riya’s daughter Vardha feels so drained by online lessons’ sensory overload, she can’t pay attention to a screen after the 4-hour mark. "So, I get her to do homework right after school, so that momentum ensures she finishes it before her attention wanders."

Older kids like her brother Viswajeeth and Naisha, though, don’t have it as lucky and often have to sacrifice their hobbies as they end up studying for longer periods with digital learning.

"Learning Hindi and Arabic online has become an uphill task for Viswajeeth as he can’t ask doubts in real time, so he has to put in extra hours after school to catch up that he’d otherwise use to read books," explains mum Riya.

Naisha shares how in the past she always had energy to play and pursue painting after school. "Now after 6-7 hours of online school I’m pretty tired and don’t feel like doing anything."

People, skills

The reduced social interaction offered by the virtual learning format is also a reason students feel depleted and wiped out. "Social interactions make school fun," explains Dr Qureshi. In the absence of this incentive, learning can transform into drudgery.

Parents Friday spoke with unanimously agreed that e-learning had seen a marked reduction in their children’s social skills. Especially those of kindergarteners for whom school is traditionally the first rung on the ladder of social interaction.

Too much screen time in general can cause some language delay due to the lack of meaningful conversation, explains Vandana Gandhi.

Hannah, whose mother tongue is Malayalam, took longer than her siblings to master spoken English, says Mashaal. "E-learning is great but it falls short when it comes to human interaction. When Hannah started playing and communicating with neighbourhood kids, her English saw drastic improvement."

Parents of older children are noticing a depletion of tangible skills such as handwriting. Hemlata shares her daughter’s apprehension about returning to analogue notes when schools reopen: "Naisha is very sceptical about writing in a notebook and jotting notes. She asked if she could continue to type notes on her laptop as she does now.

"Since e-learning has given kids the freedom to use digital devices, they try to spend all their free time online even for entertainment," Hemlata notes. It’s why she has a strict rule that no matter how much studies Naisha has, she has to shut down her laptop for two hours and utilise that time to play with her friends, go for a walk or play badminton with the family.

Reset not detox

It’s vital to reset this relationship with screens, says Dr Qureshi. "Screen use has become so prevalent that it is sometimes impossible for parents to put limits on or monitor usage."

A complete ‘detox’ or removal of screens and devices would be counterintuitive to the psychological health of today’s kids whose social lives revolve around these screens. Instead, he recommends discussing the dangers of excessive screen use with the child and getting them on board to utilise leisure time they’d spend watching TV or browsing the internet with replacement activities such as board games, sports, etc that they enjoy. Hemlata has signed up Naisha for dance and skating classes for the summer.

Riya plans to tap into Viswajeeth’s love for baking and spend time with him in the kitchen. "Doing activities together is a great way to bond and reduce a child’s need to be glued to a screen," says Dr Qureshi.

He also encourages screening whether the video games, apps and movies they use are passive or interactive and join your kids on games that involve thinking and intellectual engagement.

"As long as they follow a balanced routine that involves regular exercise, social interaction in the real world and [ample] sleep, you don’t have to fixate on or limit your child’s non-essential screen time."

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