With COVID-19 at the forefront of our recent struggles, there is another potential problem lurking behind, one that could lead to serious, harmful effects to future generations: mental disorders. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, students’ learning experience went from an interactive, lecture room to a 10 x 12 laptop or 20-inch computer screen. The increased screen time of online learning and the absence of face-to-face conversations is likely to have affected the mental health and well-being of many students. A study conducted in 2018 with 12,753 high schoolers between the age of 14 to 17 found that students who spend 7 hours or more each day in front of their computer screens were more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety. These students were also more likely to be treated by a mental health professional, or to have taken medication for a psychological or behavioral issue (Twenge et al., 2018). A limitation of this study was the use of mail surveys, which is likely to result in response bias. Students may feel embarrassed to share their excessive amount of screen time or unintentionally record different hours from what they spent. The proportion of gender and race for this study was not mentioned.
Distance learning has forced most students to spend well over 7 hours on their computers. Students have become so attached to their devices both as a learning tool and a fun outlet, transitioning from Zoom to TikTok without blinking. Students who have transitioned to online classes report increased fatigue, headaches, lack of motivation, and procrastination (Wiles, 2020). It seems like our whole world, from school to free-time, are all reduced to the computer screen. With uncertainty for the future, students are desperately trying to stay afloat during this mentally exhausting period.
Contrary to our strict schedules prior to the pandemic, virtual schooling has unraveled this regularity. A study at the University of Gothenburg surveyed 4163 young adults ranging between 20-24 years old, 35% of which were men and 65% of women. They found that 23% of the men and 34% of the women indicated sleep disturbances. Furthermore, 10% of the men and 20% of the women reported reduced performance due to stress, depressed mood, or tiredness from high computer use. It was unclear what was used as a measurement of “performance” as well as the levels of disturbances. With online learning, lectures are recorded, labs are not mandatory, and going to a club meeting just means turning on your computer. Therefore, students may fall into an unhealthy schedule that affects their sleep cycle. Research by Thomée et al., 2012 suggests that this increased computer use may increase the negative impact on sleep duration and/or quality. Even worse, many students are bringing online learning into the bedroom or in the bed. This lack of structure could lower psychological well-being and lead to future mental health challenges. Since this data was collected through a questionnaire, we must take into account that some respondents may not feel comfortable providing answers that present themselves in an unfavorable way, misinterpretation of the questions, or give unreliable answers out of boredom or disinterest. The best studies should utilize objective measurements, such as having the person’s phone or computer automatically record the screen time.
Along with these psychological concerns are neurological discoveries that challenged e-learning as a reliable alternative. Research approved by the Human Investigations Committee of Zhejiang Normal University, involved recruitment of 42 Chinese university students (22 males and 20 females) who were free of psychiatric disorders to study how e-learning change the way we store and recall information via alteration in brain function. Pre- and post- functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans confirmed that extensive screen exposure contributes to structural changes in the brain. The study showed that “there was decreased functional connectivity in the parahippocampal cortex and the temporal gyrus after training.” The exact percentage of decrease was not explicitly specified. The results also suggest that people rely less on their long-term memory when the information can be easily accessed on the internet. While the content taught via online instruction may be of pertinence, the inability to absorb the information successfully (as indicated by the study) could result in it being less useful than in person instructions. While our brain’s plasticity allowed us to adapt to the quick transition into online learning, it is evident that the long-term consequences may be regretful.
2020 has been a year of unimaginable changes and challenges, but dare I say there was a…silver lining? The mass transition to virtual learning has allowed researchers to better understand the negative impact on students and instructors alike. The pandemic has allowed us to experiment with this form of learning; it forced us to progress forward. We can use collected data to reinforce or dispute previous studies. Most importantly, we can improve or fix the system and come up with an entirely new form of delivering education. The temporary fix that we are using, however, will likely have an enduring effect on us and will possibly last for generations.
Written by Rachel Nguyen and edited by Aldrin Gomes.
Jha, A. K., & Arora, A. (2020). The neuropsychological impact of E-learning on children. Asian journal of psychiatry, 54, 102306. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajp.2020.102306
Thomée, S., Härenstam, A., & Hagberg, M. (2012). Computer use and stress, sleep disturbances, and symptoms of depression among young adults--a prospective cohort study. BMC psychiatry, 12, 176. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-244X-12-176
Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2018). Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study. Preventive medicine reports, 12, 271–283. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmedr.2018.10.003
Virtual learning: Its impacts on students' mental health (mental health resources below). (n.d.). Retrieved February 09, 2021, from https://nami-wake.org/virtual-learning-its-impacts-on-students-mental-health-mental-health-resources-below
Wiles, G. (2020, July 30). Students share impact of online classes on their mental health. Retrieved February 09, 2021, from https://statenews.com/article/2020/07/students-share-impact-of-online-classes-on-their-mental-health?ct=content_open&cv=cbox_feature