The scourge of online classes imposed due to the pandemic, exacerbated by slow 2G speed, has forced children to spend more time on the screen resulting in severe health problems.
Like others in her clan and community, Uzma Khan has come to reckon that screen is a new nanny for Kashmiri children grappling with campus deprivation and dozy indoor routine.
Due to strife-induced uncertainty and frequent lockdowns, playing cartoons on smartphones to engage kids within the four-walls of home has become a new normal for young parents in the valley.
But when the same screen routine first became mandatory and eventually monotonous in the name of online classes this past pathological spring, Uzma shortly saw her two kids getting agitated with smartphones.
“The constant gazing at screens for two-three hours has led to their eye fatigue, weakness and dryness,” the worried mother said.
Uzma’s two sons, Mohammad bin Nomaan, 5, and Mohammad Moosa, 6, studying in Srinagar’s Tyndale Biscoe School, had complained of headache and irritation in their eyes after attending online classes twice a day.
“As a result, both of them are wearing spectacles now,” the young mother said. “I’ve stopped their online classes to prevent them from further screen exposure.”
Uzma’s Unsettled Tribe
Like Uzma, two other parents, Shaheena Aslam and Yasmeen Khan, are finding it difficult to handle their five year olds for lengthy online classes every day.
“My five-year-old son who studies in Burn Hall School regularly complains of heaviness and burning sensation in his eyes,” Shaheena said. “Plus, it’s not easy to keep five-year-old at one place for three hours.”
Seconding her, Yasmeen said there’re no proper guidelines about the time-duration of the classes.
“Kindergarteners cannot bear the brunt of such long duration of classes,” she said.
“The school administration should chart a proper plan and come with the concrete steps.”
These growing grievances, said Asma Goni, make it very clear that the online classes are having drastic impact on the eyes of children.
“Besides,” Goni, Convener Private Schools’ Association of J&K (PSAJK), said, “the posture of children doesn’t remain accurate at home with gadgets. It’s also affecting their bones.”
The duration of classes should be trimmed, wherein parents can have a short interaction with the teachers, she suggested.
“Also one of the schools has now started the concept of ‘cycle tests’ online. They’re only escalating problems for children. The focus should be on written communication and assignments.”
Ever since the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic, life for children has changed like never before. Schools are closed and meetings with peers and friends outdoors are prohibited. They’re being forced to adjust to the changing dynamics of social and interpersonal relationships.
The mandatory e-learning has emerged as a method for current teaching and learning in private universities and schools. However, the overexposure to electronic medium is causing eye strain and vision problems for the lockdown-weary Kashmiri students.
Dr Hina Kaunser, ophthalmologist at SKIMS Medical College, Bemina, said that blinking is an important factor while a person works on a computer, mobile phone or laptop.
“Very Less blinking happens while working on gadgets which can result into developing the dry-eye syndrome, strain of eyes, and those who are hypermetropic can feel pain as well,” she said.
“The patients should put laminated sheets on the laptop, so that the reflections from computers won’t hurt their eyes.”
The digital screens, she continued, weaken the brain’s ability to process information, maintain focus, take decisions and control thoughts.
“Since the mind and the body of children are still developing, the effects of screen addiction are worsened,” Dr Hina said.
Seconding her, another ophthalmologist, Dr Arij Zaffar, Government Medical College (GMC), Srinagar, said the prolonged exposure to gadgets can contribute to several eye problems, ranging from dryness, irritation and redness, to grittiness and watering in the eyes and even headache in children and adolescents.
“The exposure to blue light, radiating from the display screens is the main reason for eye dryness. It’s important to reduce screen time to make sure that the eyes stay healthy and less prone to infections,” she said.
The patients complaining of such problems should resort to the 20-20-20 rule, Dr Arij said.
“It means that after every 20 minutes of screen exposure, you should try to look away at something that is 20 feet away from you for a total of 20 seconds. However, people are not aware of such things,” she said.
Digital Eye Strain
In the latest policy paper, “Digital eye strain (DES) in the era of COVID 19 pandemic: An emerging public health threat”, published in Indian Journal of Ophthalmology in August, the health experts have highlighted how without any specific guidelines, it is now a usual routine for children to spend most of the time (8-12 hours per day) attending e-classes in front of a computer or mobile screens.
The paper pointed out that the use of digital screens is quite common among Kashmiri children. Besides, the instigation of unlimited e-classes for such children has put an extra load on their already overburdened eyes.
“The prevalence of digital eye strain in the community ranges from 22.3% to 39.8%,” Dr Sheikh Mohammad Saleem, community health expert, GMC, Srinagar and one of the contributors to the paper, said.
“These devices cause harm by emitting short high energy waves that can penetrate eyes and can eventually contribute to photochemical damage to the retinal cells, making an individual vulnerable to a variety of eye problems ranging from dry eye to age related macular degeneration. It is collectively known as Digital Eye Strain (DES) or computer vision syndrome.”
He explained that DES is an emerging public health threat and is directly proportional to the duration of digital screen exposure.
“The age group that is the most at risk is children and we assume that their diagnosis could get delayed as children may not complain at the earliest like adults,” Dr Saleem said.
“It is the high time now for the policymakers to come up with a stringent guideline to deal with this emerging threat.”
Damage Already Done
Even before health experts and researchers would raise alarm bells over online classes in Kashmir, the worst fears of 9-year-old girl Aishah’s parents came true in August itself, when their daughter suddenly complained of an eye problem.
The third grader had been attending online classes on a laptop 5-6 hours a day, in addition to spending even longer durations on phone.
“Though I didn’t like the idea a bit (neither did she) we thought some sort of classroom simulation was better than nothing,” her father, Nisar Dharma, said.
Every morning, Nisar used to see her connected to Zoom, wearing a headphone while trying to make heads and tails of the online class she was connected to on 2G internet.
On August 15, she suddenly complained of dizziness and headache. The parents thought it was nothing and asked her to call it a day at the online classes.
“The next morning Aishah shocked us all after she said she wasn’t able to see properly! She couldn’t see well, so much so that she couldn’t tell how many fingers I waved in front her. She couldn’t tell what was going on the TV, she couldn’t read anything,” her father said.
Even after undergoing a series of tests, and various consultations, Aishah was not getting any better. Eventually, she was taken outside the valley and is presently being treated by a Hyderabad-based ophthalmologist.
“Parents should be aware of how terrible an idea these so-called online classes are,” Nisar said.
“That the kids have been practically locked up for over a year is alone a huge challenge for them, and on top of it the recurrent exposure to smartphones is making it worse.”