Virtual Reality: Screaming From Screen Time

Hassan Merali // Columnist

The COVID-19 pandemic turned life upside down for students everywhere. As we were pushed out of physical classrooms, lectures moved online, and the Internet became our new campus. Birch, Cedar, and the Library have been replaced with Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and eLearn. We went from sitting in classrooms, staring at instructors and whiteboards to sitting at our desks and kitchen tables, eyes glued to the screen. 

Staring at a screen to watch lectures. Staring at a screen to do homework. Staring at a screen to talk to project partners. And then logging off, ecstatic to be done for the day, so we can finally take some time for ourselves by … staring at a screen because we’re in lockdown. Given the state of the world it’s not like we’ve had much choice, but since it represents a fundamental departure from the way we’ve grown up learning, the impact of this increase in screen time on student health and wellbeing warrants an examination. 

Human eyes aren’t meant to look at screens all day. According to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS) affected 75 per cent of people who worked on computers, even before the pandemic. CVS symptoms include eye fatigue, dry eyes, burning eyes, light sensitivity, blurred vision, headaches, and pain in the neck, shoulders and/or back. These symptoms are caused by a sharp decrease in the amount we blink when we’re looking at screens, the glare and reflection of our monitors, the refresh rate of our monitors, dust and smudges on our screens, and the ergonomics of our work stations. 

The solutions seem straightforward: take breaks to look away and look at something else so your eyes can refocus. Blink more. Reposition your computer monitor to avoid glare. Change its refresh rate from 60 Hz (the usual) to between 70 and 85 Hz. Increase the font size. Adjust your ergonomic setup so that your screen is 20 to 26 inches away from your face and 4 to 5 inches below eye level. 

However, most students probably don’t know what an ergonomic setup is, let alone have the money to buy themselves one. If we’re fortunate enough to have an office chair and desk, we roll with what we can afford or are given. And the other solutions to combating CVS, or digital eye strain, are not easily compatible with the demands of modern work or school life. 

Take the 20-20-20 rule: to avoid digital eye strain, look at something 20 feet away, for 20 seconds, every 20 minutes. It’s easy to do, it’s easy to remember, and it really helps. But I frequently forget to take a break every 20 minutes. When I do remember, I find myself not wanting to drag my eyes back to the screen, relieved that they’ve stopped burning. There’s also the possibility of losing momentum, which can really mess up your workflow and impact your productivity.

Another recommendation is to not use devices for an hour before bed because the blue light emitted from screens disrupts our natural circadian rhythms. But for a student who has classes and a job during the day, the hours before bed may be the only time they have to work on assignments. The special coating you can get on your glasses to filter out the blue light emitted from screens can be costly, so I settled for the blue light filter on my phone to give it a cozier orange tint after 9:00 pm. 

Even before the pandemic started, this was a problem. Physicians have been warning us for years that we stare at our screens too much, urging us to take breaks—to leave our phones alone before bed, to go outside. Then the pandemic hit, and not only were we told to stay inside, but suddenly school, work and many jobs were moved online. For those who have to use their computers to attend lectures, do homework, and work from home—not to mention socialize with friends and watch Netflix—the increase in screen time has been debilitating.

I talked to a few students about the effects of the increase in screen time due to remote learning, and all of them said it had negatively impacted their health and wellbeing. One student said it affects his motivation, making him more “complacent and lazy,” and reported an increase in anxiety. Another student said her productivity has crashed, and because of that, so has her self-esteem. She also feels isolated because she only gets to see people through screens. Some days she feels “physically ill” after logging off, and it can take hours for her to feel normal again. Another student said her migraines are getting worse, and she feels exhausted because remote learning has erased any boundaries between her school and personal life. 

For those without disabilities, the increase in screen time has added an additional barrier to post-secondary life that’s hard to address in our current COVID-19 context. For those with disabilities, it can mean the difference between passing and failing.

Mental health was a huge issue for post-secondary students before the pandemic started. Students have been lobbying schools and governments for years to add supports to address increases in student stress, mental health issues, and suicides. Many have responded by rolling out resources—you guessed it—online. In response to years of lobbying for more support by student unions and advocacy groups, including the CSU, the provincial government rolled out Here2Talk in April 2020. Here2Talk offers 24/7 confidential counselling via app, phone, and online. 

The increase in screen time due to remote learning has made school harder for everyone. Like all things, however, it’s hit those who are already at a disadvantage the hardest. Students with disabilities are struggling, and with at least another six months of remote learning on the horizon, many feel burnt out. Several schools, including CapU, extended their winter break by a week to give students and faculty some extra time to recuperate. Obviously, the current situation isn’t tenable for the long-term. But for the rest of the school year, students have no choice.

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