Dr. Michael Gergovich does back and neck adjustments for every age group, but lately, there’s a growing bloc of patients at his La Salle office: e-learners.
Gergovich is a chiropractor who’s been working on children from third grade through high school, most of them having issues stemming from spending their days glued to smart phones, tablets and laptop computers.
“This generation got their cellphones super early, and their life is on a device,” he said.
It’s about to get worse. Amid a surge in COVID-19 cases across Starved Rock Country, parochial schools have switched to remote learning, and several public schools have as well. Gergovich has children of his own and wants everyone protected from COVID-19, but he’s worried about what daylong computer use will do to our children.
“So now, instead of sitting at a desk in a classroom setting, they’re using their tablet, their phone, their computer,” he said, “and it’s right there for when they’re relaxing, having fun, talking to their friends, doing social media.”
But Gergovich and other health professionals say there are rules and strategies parents can implement in the home classroom to protect their children’s general health, particularly their backs and their eyes, and to protect their mental health.
By establishing a level, well-lit workspace and enforcing set breaks, parents can ease back on eye strain. And with a little designated play time, children can overcome the stress of completing their studies amid the pandemic.
Sit up straight, please
Gergovich said a level desk or table will improve posture, although he acknowledged many families don’t have the space or furnishings for individual study space.
“A lot of kids don’t have their own computer desks in their rooms – they weren’t prepared for this, either – so they’re laying on their beds, they’re using bad posture and things like that,” he said.
For those kids who rest their portable computers or tablets on their laps, he recommends using a pillow to elevate the device. A standard pillow in the lap will boost the device by a few critical inches and keep children from sitting hunched over to see the screen.
Just don’t stay in that position all day. Gergovich recommended parents set the kitchen timer for 30- or 45-minute intervals, at which point the children should stand up and stretch.
“They’ve got to get up from what they’re doing because they’re going to be in their rooms all day long, sitting in their bad-posture positions,” he said. “Take a walk. Go to the kitchen. Go to the bathroom. Stretch out. Look up towards the ceiling. Do a couple jumping jacks. Get some blood flowing, and then sit back down.”
Get their eyes checked
If your kids wear glasses, then Dr. Joseph “Barry” Jackson recommends inquiring about Vision Ease lenses the next time you take them in for an eye exam.
Continuous computer use means higher levels of ultraviolet and blue light that can lead to cataracts. Vision Ease lenses have a coating that can reduce UV transmission by up to 70%.
“This is a coating we recommend for anyone using a laptop or computer,” Jackson said. “Nowadays, of course, that means anyone in school.”
Jackson also recommended parents use artificial tears (brand names include Refresh Tears and Genteal) before long stretches in front of the computer to keep the children's eyes from drying out.
As Jackson explained it, people tend not to blink at a normal rate when they stare at computer screens. Also, ultraviolet and blue light exposure make your tears evaporate more quickly.
Jackson also encouraged short breaks – five minutes every half hour – to give the eyes a respite from the computer screen. Jackson is the father of a teenage son and knows the difficulty keeping young people from their devices – “It’s an absolutely losing battle” – but getting them at least to take breaks is an attainable and healthy goal.
Get them out to play
Kids aren’t getting their physical education or recess, and that means it’s important for parents to get them outside and elevate their heart rates.
Kelly Campbell is a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor with the Illinois Valley YMCA. She also is the mother of a 15-year-old son and knows the youthful “tendency to stay parked in front of their phones and tablets.”
“The key is to get them up and moving,” Campbell said. “If the weather is mild, getting fresh air and activity outside is a great way to decompress after school.”
Campbell encouraged parents to learn their children’s physical strengths and preferences to hone in on what activities will keep them engaged and happy.
“Make it fun,” Campbell said. “And don’t forget, some household chores can count as activity and can be helpful as well.”
Indoor activities can’t be ruled out because cold weather is looming. Campbell said parents should plan ahead “and have them outside for short periods and at the warmest time of day. Have a specific activity planned, such as building a snowman, raking leaves, etc.”
Be patient, watch for red flags
Are your nerves frayed by the pandemic and the resulting infection controls? Don’t be surprised if your children's nerves are on edge, too.
Ginger K. Brainard, a child psychologist, urged parents to be patient and expect the pent-up emotions to spill over now and again.
“Most kids are quicker to anger, more readily giving up and quicker to make self-deprecating remarks, like ‘I can’t do this,’ ” she said. “I hear this even with the high-achieving, motivated and organized students. This is common across all types of learners.”
Brainard said it’s a good idea to stay in touch with teachers and ask their input in deciding which assignments get priority. It’s a good idea to hold children to a school-like sleep schedule: Don’t let them stay up until midnight and sleep in until 10 a.m.
“I strongly encourage parents to keep kids on a school schedule, to go to bed at a reasonable time and get up as if they were reporting for school.”
Brainard said parents should seek outside help if their children start making threats or divulging thoughts of self-harm or suicide – “Those are definitely red flags” – but short of that, parents should be open about their own frustrations amid the pandemic. Kids need to be reminded that life will return to normal.
“We’re going to get through this, and we’ll be OK.”