Last year in August, five months into her online classes, Nisar Dharma’s 8-year-old daughter suddenly woke up to blurred vision and headache. Her parents were shocked when they saw that she couldn’t tell the number of fingers her father was waving in front of her.
“She couldn’t tell what was going on the TV screen and couldn’t even read anything from her books. She couldn’t see my face and could only see some blurred patches,” Dharma, a 34-year-old journalist, said.
The class-3 girl had been attending video classes on zoom daily from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm on a smartphone with just 20 minutes of break in between.
“Her eyes kind of gave up. It was absolutely scary to the point that if she would stand up, she would just fall,” the father said.
For two months, Dharma consulted paediatricians, neurologists and ophthalmologists but could not conclude on an exact illness her daughter was suffering from and its cause. “In desperation, I even went to a faith healer,” he said.
Fortunately, he consulted a doctor from Hyderabad on the phone who concluded that her daughter’s illness was directly related to her online classes.
“I sent all her tests reports to the doctor and then visited him in September. The doctor told us that the muscles of her eyes had weakened by the constant use of a mobile phone. He called it ‘accommodative spasm’,” he said.
The doctor gave her some eye exercises and now her vision has improved a lot, though she has to wear thick eyeglasses.
“From then on, she has not attended any online classes. I am totally against online classes, though I have been submitting the fees regularly,” Dharma said.
For the second year in a row as the second wave of Covid-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc, the educational institutions have been closed again. The schools, particularly private institutions, have been aggressively pursuing online classes for the students, even for those who are as young as 4-years-old. While government schools have been holding online classes mostly from Class-5 onwards, the private institutions have been even asking KG students to attend online interactions with teachers.
Parents and experts are saying that the prolonged exposure of children to screens is affecting the physical as well as the mental health of the children. Some schools have now increased the daily overall class duration from three hours to even five hours causing outrage among the parents. The students have to attend 6 to 8 classes daily on online video apps.
“It is very taxing and torturous for children to force them to sit for hours at a stretch on mobiles or laptops. The timings should be minimum as these screens are detrimental to their eyes and are more dangerous for their overall health,” said Ishfaq Shah, a parent whose daughter studies at a prominent school on the city outskirts.
Sajad Ahmad Khanday, associate professor of ophthalmology at Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) Hospital, said that the more the children use near-vision devices like mobiles and laptops, their eyes become more nearsighted (myope).
“Their accommodation power overplays and slowly their far-vision gets compromised. And as children remain wedged to the devices inside, they get less exposure to sunlight which contains vitamin D which is important for the development of vision. So with the excessive use of screens and inadequate exposure to sunlight, their myopia increases. And it becomes a very vicious circle,” he said.
He said that since the online classes started after March 2020 they were witnessing an increase in the cases of children with myopic eyes.
“It has definitely increased. Not only myopia but overall eye discomforts like dryness and allergies have also definitely gone up among children,” he said.
The increase in the screen time of children has not only resulted in physical effects on their bodies but has also led to some behavioural changes in the children.
“My son is in class-1 and constantly attending online classes have made him temperamental. He feels irritated after spending four hours in front of a camera and runs away. He says he does not understand things on camera. I have now decided to allow him to skip some classes daily,” said a parent who is also a teacher at a prominent private school in Srinagar.
“As a teacher, I also feel that the classes tend to get boring online and after some time the students loses interest. They put the zoom classes on mute. Even the teachers become exhausted delivering eight classes on screen every day,” she said.
Dr Syed Karrar Hussain, a child and adolescent psychiatrist of the valley, said there is emerging evidence of the developmental impact on children with the increase in screen time.
“We as human beings are wired to have ‘human touch’ in our mundane affairs… From my clinical experience, I see emerging flare-ups in behavioural issues following school closure. Unpredictability, lack of structure, poor socialisation, parental pressure in disciplining, temperamental vulnerabilities all contribute somehow to the behavioural problems. We need to learn quickly to find ways to minimise the negative consequences of online academic learning,” he said.
He said that children tend to get distracted and find it difficult to focus as there is no face to face supervision.
“There is a tendency to digress to other channels on the internet, sometimes adult-oriented content. These are not ideal times. Since online classes are the need of the hour, parents need to take supervisory roles during the classwork,” he said.
Parents, teachers and doctors are demanding a reduction in the number of hours of online teaching.
“As a parent, I would say the interaction of children with their teachers, even though online, is important. But online teaching can’t replace the classroom. The schools should reduce the number of hours of screen time to 2 hours. This can’t go on like this,” said Javaid Ahmad, a parent of two school-going children.
Associate professor of ophthalmology, Dr Khanday, said that children up to 2 years should not be exposed to screens at all. “Those up to 5 years should have around 1-2 hours of screen time. As you go up you can increase the exposure marginally. The problem is that the child does not stop the use of gadgets after their online classes and parents have to maintain discipline on the use of their phones by their children,” he said.
GN War, president of private schools association of Kashmir, said that they have received multiple complaints from parents over the conduct of online classes by the schools.
“We are looking into the issue to devise a uniform system so that the children are not put under undue pressure and there is no mental trauma,” he said.
“We will see what best can be done so that online classes are conducted reasonably with limited timing,” he said.
He said that the government should have come out with a uniform system for online classes in government and private schools. “The government issued no guidelines creating chaos and confusion. It should have specified the number of hours students could attend classes and the syllabus. There should have been an open system of teaching with classes not only online but even on radio and TV so that there was no digital divide,” he said.
Meanwhile, while the attendance of students for online classes in private schools has been more than satisfactory, the majority of those from government schools have not been able to join online classes owing to a lack of smartphones.
Rafiq Rather, chairman of the government teachers’ forum, said there was below 40 per cent attendance of online learning in government schools. “It is not encouraging as there are no android phones with our students. Most of them are first generational learners. The purpose of online classes is not fulfilled in government schools,” he said.
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