Whether your kids are learning remotely, or spending a lot of time doing online homework, study or assignments (not to mention, their gaming or social media use), chances are they’re experiencing ‘digital fatigue’. Many children and teens are reporting feeling sore eyes, headaches, musculoskeletal aches and pains (such as ‘tech-neck), an inability to focus online, or perhaps general fatigue after a long day on digital devices.
They’re not alone. Many adults are also reporting experiencing digital fatigue too. And the reason is that we’re not working in alignment with our biology. We’re not machines. We have ancient brains and bodies that haven’t evolved to be plugged-in and processing a barrage of information 24/7. So what our kids, teens (and us) are experiencing is tangible evidence that our brains and bodies are struggling in this always-on, digitalised landscape.
So what are we to do, given that technology plays an integral role in our children’s and teens’ lives for both leisure and learning? We need to teach kids (and us too) how to work in unison with our brain and biology, not against it. We need to help our kids and teens foster healthy and sustainable digital habits. This is what I cover in my student workshop Thrive Online which I deliver in-person to students, or it can be accessed online for your ‘screenagers’ to watch.
Five Super-Simple Strategies to Prevent Digital Fatigue
1. Close your eyes
Eye strain is very common given that kids and teens are spending a significant amount of time in front of screens. It occurs from staring at an object in the close to mid-range fixed distance. When working or studying online our brain’s occipital and temporal lobes are working very hard to process the visual and auditory information coming from a digital device. These two regions of the brain occupy around 40% of the brain’s architecture so it can be very depleting when kids are spending hours on a laptop (and then spending their downtime on a phone or gaming console).
A simple remedy is to encourage kids and teens to regularly close their eyes, even if just for ten seconds. Closing our eyes gives these two lobes in our brain a rest. Doing so can increase the alpha brain waves which makes it easier for the brain to focus and remain calm and also gives our eyes a much-needed rest from staring at an object in close range.
2. Get outside and get active
Kids’ and teens’ sedentary levels are increasing due to increasing time spent online, as numerous studies have shown1. Physical movement is vital for optimal physical and mental health. Movement helps the brain create dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin: brain chemicals that play a critical role in regulating mood and helping the brain to focus and pay attention. During lockdown, we’ve been starting our remote learning days with a quick swim in the ocean. On the days that we don’t do this, the boys’ focus and motivation are noticeably different. As I often say,”The basics work, if you work the basics.”
Increased time sitting down on devices also means young people are spending less time outdoors and time in nature which is vital for their physical and mental health and also critical for their focus. We know, for example, that exposure to natural sunlight can help regulate their circadian rhythms which helps with healthy sleep habits. Time in sunlight can also help prevent myopic progression (near-sightedness).
Studies have shown that there is a ‘nature restoration effect’ that can result from being outdoors meaning that children’s capacity to focus can be enhanced through regular time outdoors2. There’s also evidence that time in nature can buffer against childhood and adolescent stress3. Although learning to deal with tolerable amounts of stress can be a typical part of childhood and adolescence, there are some concerns that spending hours on screens can unnecessarily elevate stress in young people. Online activities, such as rapid-past games, intense What’sApp conversations, seeing upsetting news online, or reading cruel comments on social media can activate the sympathetic nervous system resulting in what’s colloquially referred to as ‘techno-stress’. Again, time in nature can help buffer this elevated stress state that the online world can potentially pose to kids and teens.
3. Establish consistent work spaces
Having a designated study area where students complete homework, online learning or study is vital. Ideally, it wouldn’t be a desk in their bedroom (as this can cause issues with sleep hygiene). Having an allocated and familiar workspace helps the brain retain information. How? It’s called ‘state dependent recall’. Basically, our brains are constantly scanning the environment (sights, sounds, smells) and processing these sensory cues to determine the appropriate behaviour. If kids work at the same position, their brain will automate the neural pathways that process the sensory cues, making it easier for information retrieval.
Your children and teens might have one location for deep, focused work or study and another location for class Zoom or Teams calls, or for doing less taxing work. The idea is that they perform similar tasks at the set location, as it will free up vital mental energy to process what they’re learning and not divert attentional resources to processing redundant, sensory information.
Having a designated spot for your child or adolescent to work, as opposed to your child moving around in various locations at home, also means you can more easily set up their workstation correctly according to ergonomic considerations. For example, can you ensure that their laptop or tablet isn’t being used under fluorescent lights or near a bright window, as this can place additional strains on the eye? Can you ensure the device is 40-70cm away from the body and positioned so that the spine and neck can remain straight? You may need to prop children with cushions, or prop devices on piles of books or magazines if you don’t have access to a desk riser.
4. Work in ‘digital dashes’
We need to encourage kids and teens to work in short bursts, or as I refer to them as ‘digital dashes’. Why? Working online is mentally taxing: there is a lot of visual and auditory information for our brains to process when working on a tablet, laptop or smartphone. In addition, our bodies naturally work in cycles throughout the day where we have regular peaks and troughs in our energy- they’re called ‘ultradian rhythms’. This means that kids’ and teens’ energy will cycle through roughly 90 minute intervals.
This isn’t to suggest that kids should work online for 90 minutes. That’s unrealistic for kids (and many adults too). What it means is that we need to encourage them to work in short cycles and have intermittent breaks. Every 90 minutes they may need a longer break to accommodate their energy trough. They may work for 20 minutes and then have a quick break and then resume their online work again. This is much more efficient than sitting for long durations in front of a screen.
The other benefit of working in ‘digital dashes’ is that it creates more ‘beginnings’ and ‘endings’ and this helps with memory retention as our brain tends to remember the beginning and end of a lesson (it’s referred to as the ‘primacy’ and ‘recency’ principles). Another benefit of working in short intervals is that it can encourage more incidental movement- can you put a skipping rope next to their workstation? Can they do squats or mountain climbers or stair running between virtual activities?
A very general rule for children and teens’ focused attention when working online is their chronological age, plus or minus one minute. For example, you might expect an 8 year old to focus for 7-9 minutes online and a 15 year old to focus for 14-16 minutes on a set task. It’s an unrealistic expectation that they can sit on a class Zoom call for 60 minutes (many adults would find this challenging too- you can read more about Zoom fatigue here).
5. Have a schedule
The human brain loves predictability. We need to do what we can to make students’ days as predictable as possible. If we create rhythms and structure, it can reduce decision fatigue: the fewer choices we have to make, the less taxing it is on the prefrontal cortex which is the part of the brain that helps with decision-making. This need is even more pronounced during a pandemic when much certainty has been eroded. The brain has a negativity bias, so kids and teens (and us adults too) can tend to focus on the negative aspects if we don;t have some parameters around our time. Providing kids with a predictable routine (as best we can) allows them to focus on the more critical tasks.
We all need to remember that learning, studying (and even working) online is cognitively fatiguing and places additional demands on our brain and body. We need to work in alignment with our brain and body when working in a digital space. These must now be considered imperative life skills if we want to thrive online.
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Thygesen, M., Engemann, K., Holst, G. J., Hansen, B., Geels, C., Brandt, J., … & Dalsgaard, S. (2020). The association between residential green space in childhood and development of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a population-based cohort study. Environmental health perspectives, 128(12), 127011.
McCormick, R. (2017). Does access to green space impact the mental well-being of children: A systematic review. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 37, 3-7