Online learning is zooming away mental health

Samantha Elegant

Wake up, stumble out of bed, hastily get ready and immediately sit down in front of a screen; this is the new normal morning routine for high school students. You log onto Zoom and try to pay attention, but find yourself zoning out just a few minutes in. The entire period is a fight against the urge to turn off your camera just to give your eyes and mind a break. Then you realize that what has felt like hours has only been one class period, and you drag yourself to the next virtual classroom. 

Screen time is taking its toll on all of us participating in distance learning. Extensive amounts of screen time lead to mental health and physical issues, so as distance learning remains the reality at Redwood, we have to look for alternative methods of learning online, as well as ways to alleviate “Zoom fatigue.”

Illustration by Isabella Lombardo

During online school, Redwood students and teachers are among the 300 million daily users of Zoom. According to the Psychiatric Times, participants, such as ourselves, are experiencing what they call “Zoom fatigue,” which is the tired or burnt out feeling that occurs after using online communication programs for extended periods of time. According to a Bark survey conducted in October 2020, 63 percent of Redwood students report always feeling tired or burnt out after zoom classes and 27 percent say they often feel this way.  

However, “Zoom fatigue” isn’t the only problem. Our mental health is also at stake. In a survey from the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health, 41 percent of “children and young people” reported that using screens negatively impacted their play and fun, while 35 percent stated that it has affected both their mood and mental health.

Experts have found that these detrimental impacts on our mental health are common due to the major differences between online communication and in-person social interaction. In a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) interview, Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at the European Institute of Business Administration, said that one of the reasons for the fatigue and decline in mental health is because it is hard to process and pick up non-verbal and social cues over a screen. He also explained the “self-complexity theory,” which is how negative feelings can be generated when our social lives, academic careers and avenues of entertainment are compiled in the same place, as they now are on a computer screen. In addition to these problems, the Psychiatric Times describes how the dopamine and pleasure we derive from in-person social interactions far outweigh that of online communication.

Despite these significant impacts, there is no definitive evidence that proves looking at computer screens for long periods will cause permanent eye damage or otherwise impair our physical health. According to Harvard Health, many people worry about the blue light coming from our screen leading to age-related macular degeneration or blindness. However, the concentration of light emitted by consumer electronics is small enough that it will not cause retinal damage or significant harm. That being said, exposure to blue light can lead to minor issues; according to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Health, our eyes have to work extra hard to keep pixelated images in focus when looking at a screen. Furthermore, humans blink half the usual amount of time when using computers, and this in itself can lead to eye strain, a factor that contributes to “Zoom fatigue.”

In order to mitigate this issue, certain practices should be put in place and screen time needs to be overall reduced. According to Petriglieri, Zoom calls need to be limited and cameras should be optional. It is also helpful to set the screen to the side, not straight ahead, and to make sure that all the time spent on the screen is used efficiently. UCLA Health promotes the 20-20-20 rule, meaning looking at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds after 20 minutes of screen time. Reducing screen brightness, sitting two feet from the computer screen and remembering to blink are other practices that could help.

At school, some of these suggestions such as optional cameras may not be feasible, but teachers can and should try to combat this issue of digital fatigue in other ways for our happiness and mental health. This means we need to use our screens only when necessary by possibly doing more work on paper and giving students time off from the cameras through regular breaks.

Teachers and students alike are doing their best to navigate our new, virtual world. The hope is that we will be returning to in-person school as soon as possible, as of now in January, but with our lives still limited to boxes on a screen for at least the next two months, we need to recognize and limit the effects of screen time for the sake of our mental health.