Inappropriate content, eye problems: How to manage the risks of online education

With the switch to online classes necessitated by the COVID-19 situation, parents who are not tech-savvy are finding it difficult to monitor their wards.
Inappropriate content, eye problems: How to manage the risks of online education
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An intimate video of two teenagers in Kerala who were supposed to be studying together during online classes, has worried parents in the state. After the video was leaked in WhatsApp groups, the parents went to the police to register a complaint. 

Mythili*, whose son studies in the same school, tells TNM that she heard of the incident when she went to meet the principal to discuss online safety. 

“I had gone to meet the principal to warn about a similar issue that I fear my eight-year-old son will face. That’s when he told me about this incident that happened to a senior student,” says Mythili.

The switch to online classes, while largely helpful from an academic point of view, comes with a list of problems that need immediate intervention. Increased access to the internet has its own perils. Mythili’s husband uses parental control on the laptop so that the child will not be able to access inappropriate content for his age. But, how many parents are aware of the technology?

Parents have a role to play

Dr Arun B Nair, psychiatrist, medical teacher and author, says: “Many problems arise when parents do not have internet awareness. There have been cases where children login for online class and on the side, they play games and check social media. It is important that parents acquire a level of digital literacy. Even if they come from a socially and educationally deprived background, they can get help on using parental control apps. These apps will completely block sites that are inappropriate for children, such as porn sites. Online games can also be restricted. Such (customised) equipment could then be given to the child for education.”

Rathi Nair, a plus 2 teacher, says that it is important that the parents monitor the children during the class. 

“Even if they are not tech-savvy, timely intervention can help. They should be aware of what the child is doing, and show more involvement. Many parents stay with the children during the class – from Class 1 to 12. As teachers, we make sure that they don’t wander off by asking them to keep their videos on and making the class interactive, with periodic questions on the topic being taught. Even in a physical classroom, many students tend to daydream and you need to keep it interactive, so students know they have to pay attention," she says. 

Curious pre-teens and teens, who want more freedom to explore the internet, may have invented excuses even before the lockdown to persuade their parents on this front. There have been instances of students making up stories about assignments that ‘the teacher asked to Google about', convincing parents that they need access to devices. 

“It is when we see them for the next PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) meeting that we learn about this. There would have been no such assignment. Another common trick is to say that ‘Miss will send notes on WhatsApp’ and then stay hooked to WhatsApp. So it is important that parents keep track of what’s happening in the class and monitor the child,” Rathi says.

It is, however, not always possible to monitor device usage, especially when both the parents are employed. Grandparents, if present, may not be able to sit in front of the screen for long. “There is the constant fear over what the children will look at, what they will search on Google and so on,” says Bhavanya, a mother of two. She and her husband go to work, so it is not easy for them to keep track of their child's online activities.

“My neighbour next door is not tech savvy at all and has no idea what her child is looking at on the device. Such is the case of most of the parents in the panchayat I live in," she says.

However, these fears about children accessing inappropriate content exist even otherwise.

“If there is no open communication between a child and the parents, they will try to get information from other sources, which may or may not give the correct information,” says Anu Suraj, founder of Swaraksha, an NGO that works on providing child protection services.

Other issues

Apart from the dangers of free internet access, online classes also come with a set of other issues, such as increased screen time, which can affect the concentration, sleep and behaviour of children.

Anu says that children can develop eye problems and many children use anti-glare glasses while attending the online classes. “There are also anger issues and tantrums by the younger lot. Little kids get hyperactive. Parents, especially when both are working, can be stressed a lot.”

Dr Arun says, “Ideally, children under the age of three should have no screen time, those between the ages of three and eight can have up to 30 minutes of screen time a day, and kids aged above eight can have an hour of screen time a day. But that won’t be practical in these times, so the next best thing is to reduce the bad effects of screen time by preferably using a laptop or desktop rather than a mobile phone as far as possible.”

Some of the measures he suggests are:

 -- Keep the child at a safe distance from the gadget and maintain the same eye level, and also adjust the light settings.

 -- Every 30 minutes, let the eyes close for a bit of rest.

 --  Using the mobile phone for purposes other than educational should be restricted to an hour a day.

 --  It is also important to completely avoid all use of digital equipment two hours before going to bed.

Game addiction is a huge issue among older students who tend to keep awake in the night to play and then sleep in the day. Dr Arun says that higher secondary school and college-going students login to their online classes in the morning and then go to sleep during the day.

With the lockdown, children may have also developed deficiency of vitamin D, with little or no exposure to sunlight. “We did a study on the sudden academic regression seen in adolescents and it was found that 96% of them had deficient levels of Vitamin D. You get it on exposure to sunlight and it is important for information processing in the brain. So, children should have at least an hour of physical activity every day, with exposure to sunlight," says Dr Arun. 

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