Healthy Habits for Online Learning

You’re fifteen minutes into C period when the headache kicks in. 

It pulses behind your eyes and in your temples, refusing to be ignored. You wonder why this is happening to you. Maybe you’re tired, maybe you’re dehydrated, or maybe it’s the fact that you’re sitting at a computer for hours, five days a week, logged on to Teams call after Teams call. There must be something you can do to help improve this routine… and that’s where building healthy habits comes in. 

The physical, mental, and emotional side effects of online learning are manifesting in different ways, many of which are being experienced by Oyster River students. Whether the screen time gives you headaches or the constant sitting has made you tired and unmotivated, these impacts get in the way of having the most enriching online learning experience possible. While changing the current model of remote learning may not be in your control, learning new healthy habits to aid with these symptoms is well within reach. 

The first, and often most noticeable challenge of online learning, is the lack of physical movement. Students and teachers are often glued to their chairs throughout the day as they work on their computers, which can cause fatigue and muscle stiffness. I’ve personally noticed that sitting for hours on end drains my energy, leaving me lethargic and unable to focus. To remedy this, Lucy Garfield, an Oyster River “floating nurse” that travels from building to building, emphasized the importance of getting up and moving throughout the school day. 

“From a strictly physical standpoint, [online learning] is leading to a much more sedentary lifestyle, so I would recommend that people try and incorporate some exercise into their daily routine, even if it’s taking a ten-minute stretching break,” said Garfield

Staying in the same position for too long could be a reason for your aches and pains throughout the day, according to ORHS nurse Kim Wolph. “Often, while remote learning or teaching, people think they must be sitting in front of the computer,” Wolph explained. “It is important to change your position throughout the day while in front of the computer. I recommend changing your position from sitting to standing and encourage the use of balance ball chairs when able, as they can help improve posture.”

Many students are taking it upon themselves to develop the healthy habit of a more active lifestyle, such as Ari Alcocer (‘21). “I started to go for runs and do workouts at home just to get me out of my room and get my heart rate up,” she said. “The physical activity I started doing on my own helped me catch a break, honestly. If I didn’t take those forty-five minutes of some physical activity, I would feel overwhelmed.”

Not only is the act of sitting for long periods of time detrimental to your health, digital eye strain is an issue that is impacting many students and adults working from home. 

“I’ve started to have these little eye twitches and stuff I can’t stop,” explained Patrick Moore (‘21). “My eyes are constantly strained.”

According to “5 Truths About Protecting Your Eyes” by Harvard Health, the idea that looking at screens for extended periods of time harms your eyes is a myth. However, it is important to take screen breaks throughout the day, about every hour, to prevent the eye fatigue that Moore described. This can be difficult amid back-to-back classes, so make sure to maximize the free time you’re given if possible (such as lunch and FLEX) to take a quick screen break. While it’s true that exposure to high-intensity blue light can cause retinal damage, the light emitted from your laptop is not categorized as such. So while eye fatigue due to excessive screen use can be irritating and sometimes even painful, be aware that no substantial damage is being done to your eyes. 

“I’ve heard the blue light lenses are helping a lot,” Garfield said, referring to a popular kind of glasses that are specifically designed to filter out the blue light emitted from devices. “But I think that just taking a break from [screens] as best you can will really, really benefit you.” I, personally, have been using blue light glasses since the beginning of online learning in the spring of 2020, and I have found that they reduce my tension-induced headaches and eye strain significantly. 

Another reason for this fatigue that people often blame on blue light is that computer users don’t blink as often when they’re looking at a screen, according to “What to do when more screen time leads to more eye strain” from Sanford Health. Therefore, it’s important to consciously blink while working online, which can help fend off dry eyes and prevent discomfort during screen time.

Something else to consider is the brightness of your screen, which can tire your eyes out quicker. Make sure that your brightness isn’t at a harsh level – some computers and smart devices offer settings that are designed to limit eye strain by dimming the light and adding a slight orange filter – and even though there is not significant data supporting the use of blue light glasses, there’s no harm in giving them a try.

Alongside these physical effects of remote learning, it is important to address the mental and emotional impacts. “Some students thrive in online learning environments as they feel they can focus without classroom distractions and really hone in on what the teacher is relaying,” said Wolph. “Others feel isolated and benefit from the energy that they get from others within the classroom.”

Many students, especially those who are extroverted and thrive off of social interaction, find themselves grieving the loss of the social nature of in–person learning. “I used to love talking to people in school or in public but now I hope I don’t see someone I know when I’m at the gas station filling up my tank,” said Alcocer. “[Remote learning] has definitely been a struggle because I have lost most hope of being able to go back and finish up my senior year in the high school. The idea of not being able to go into school and see my friends at all is just heartbreaking.”

Hannah Cunningham, the School Psychologist at ORHS, agreed with Wolph and Alcocer, saying, “stress and anxiety are becoming more prevalent during this difficult time. The pandemic and working from home can induce more stressors. People may find it harder to stay connected to their community, adapt to schedule changes, and find ways to stay active, all of which can negatively impact mental health and resiliency.” 

Cunningham also emphasized self-care as a way to battle these mental and emotional troubles, saying: “Self-care is important to focus on throughout the day because it fights off burn-out. If we focus on little ways to take care of ourselves in day-to-day life, we are less likely to hit a wall and feel completely spent. Self-care also helps us stay motivated and focused when needed if we use our down time to take care of ourselves, which leads to less stress down the line.”

Students like Rachel Rowley (‘22) are finding their own self-care strategies that help them get through the difficulties of online learning. 

 “I do a lot of skincare, mainly because at the start of my day and the end of my day, I get to take five minutes of my time to really focus on myself,” Rowley explained. “I think it’s a short moment that’s really important in your day, whatever you’re doing, to take some time to focus on yourself.” Rowley also stressed the importance of participating in self-care that is screen free. In a time when our whole worlds as students are online, it’s especially important to choose activities that are simultaneously relaxing, fulfilling, and unplugged. 

“Apart from [skincare], I love to read,” Rowley said. “I feel that reading is a healthy way to kind of take myself away from reality and into a different world. I love to take small walks… anything I can do to get away from the screen is a really great way for me to self reflect and take a break for my mental health.” 

There’s a plethora of self-care activities that students and adults alike can participate in, whether it is skincare, exercising, journaling, or reading. Pretty much anything goes. However, there are a few important questions to ask yourself when choosing a self-care activity, to make sure you’re doing something that will really help you. 

First: is it off screens? The best way to fight tired eyes is to take small breaks from screens throughout the day, no matter what your activity of choice is. 

Second: Is it something I enjoy? Please don’t force yourself to read or draw if that’s something that does not bring you joy… one of the primary goals of self-care is to boost your mood. 

Third: will this calm me? Perhaps choosing an intense board game or even a complicated coloring page can make you anxious. If not, great. But if you think it will add to your anxiety load, try and choose something else. 

Finally, check in with yourself. Do you just need a brief activity to lift your spirits or is there something more intensive you need to address your concerns, such as speaking to a trusted adult or seeking professional care? After all, we’re living through a pandemic and feelings of anxiety or even depression are known consequences of these psychological and physical changes. If you feel that your anxiety or feelings of sadness are interfering with your daily life, it is important to seek out resources that can help you work through these emotions and find targeted solutions. 

“I want to encourage those who are feeling isolated or struggling to let either your parent or a faculty member know,” said Wolph. “This pandemic made us shift quickly to a different style of learning, without the luxury of advanced warning, and with that comes many different reactions or responses.” Whether adults can simply provide a listening ear or help to connect you with a therapist or support group, their judgement-free involvement is an important step in healing from anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns. 

No matter what symptoms you’re feeling most strongly, know that there is a wealth of information out there to support you, whether it can be found through the counseling department or from reputable health websites. It is also important to remember that healthy habits are not something you perform only once. Real positive effects can only be seen through consistent repetition, so try adding something small into your daily routine now to improve your remote learning experience. For more information about mental health resources, check out Laura Slama’s article “Mental Health Q&A,” the “Counseling Corner” group on Schoology, or connect with your counselor, school nurse, or school psychologist. 

If you or a loved one are feeling hopeless or at risk, please text HOME to 741-741 or call 911 for emergencies.