GUWAHATI: Prolonged indoor confinement during the pandemic is taking a toll on both the physical and mental health of children and adolescents.

As the third wave of COVID has once again triggered a surge in the positivity rate since early January, it was obvious that the education department could not take the risk of exposing children (below 15 years of age) who are not vaccinated yet, to the virus.

Subsequently, the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA) issued a revised directive, ordering closure of offline classes for students up to Class VIII in Kamrup-Metropolitan district and up to Class V in other districts of the state.

Now, even as virtual classes are being held on a regular basis, parents are worried that such periodic disruptions, and more so the uncertainty in regard to resumption of normality might affect their wards physically and psychologically.

“I hardly get the time from office work to look after my two daughters, who are in standards three and eight. Not just their regular classes, but tuition classes and even extra-curricular sessions are being held in the online mode. My children are missing the regular process, be it offline classes or meeting their friends, and this new normal might take some time for them to adapt,” says a parent, who did not wish to be named.

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“As adults, we too are concerned about how uncertain life has become as there seems to be no end to the waves and variants of coronavirus,” she adds.

Looking back, when the pandemic hit the country in March 2020, among others, schools and colleges had to be shut for about six to seven months.

The same regimen had to be adhered to for a good part of last year too, even as educational institutions were directed to take measures to resume online classes and promote e-learning among students until re-opening of the institutions.

According to the findings of a study, an alarming percentage of children and adolescents are experiencing what is now a world-wide mental crisis owing to the COVID-19 pandemic with one in four youth globally experiencing clinically elevated depression symptoms while one in five have clinically elevated anxiety symptoms.

More alarmingly, these symptoms are compounding over time, with older adolescents and girls experiencing the highest levels of depression and anxiety.

Experts also say that what children feel about a current disaster in their life and how they react to it can come and go in waves. Children can act moody and withdrawn at times, struck with sorrow and fear at other times, which is why the role of parents in counselling their wards becomes very important.  

Guwahati-based clinical child psychologist, Rohit Kumar Deka says: “COVID-19 has lasted for two years now. As a clinical child psychologist, I would like to say that currently children and adolescents are facing behavioural, emotional and social issues owing to forced isolation from the society, which has manifested into aggression and anxiety, et al.”

“It is advised that parents maintain a positive environment at home and keep a close watch on their children / adolescents that warrants them taking their child /adolescent for counselling sessions along with parental counselling sessions by a psychologist of their expertise,” Deka told EastMojo.

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There is another problem that parents need to handle with care and caution. Given the situation, children invariably spend more time in front of screens, be it computers or smart-phones and television.

“It is hard to always keep a check on my 14-year-old daughter and her ways of spending leisure time. So there are times now when she could be spending more hours in front of the television or with the smartphone, once the virtual class gets over,” says another concerned mother.

“I fear that factors such as isolation, lack of outdoor activities and more screen time can affect her health. As it is, I have noticed a loss of appetite somewhat, given the lack of adequate physical activities,” she observes.

There are also concerns about the long-term optic health of children as well, given the strain on their eyes due to over exposure to digital screens beyond academic hours.

Guwahati-based eye specialist Dr Dipak Bhuyan says that long stretches of screen time reduces the (eye) blinking rate to five to six times per minute as against a normal blinking rate of 15 to 16 times per minute.

“As children spend more time in front of digital screens owing to the virtual classes, the tear film of their eyes evaporates faster as they remain wide open with a reduced blinking rate while concentrating on the screens,” Dr Bhuyan says.

“The tear film is a chemical solution which is meant for the ideal health of the eye surface…so the moment the water level decreases, the chemical property of the fluid gets altered, resulting in dry eyes, irritation, eye fatigue and even headaches,” he says.

Interestingly, studies have also linked outdoor life to healthier vision development, particularly among children.

“Outdoor activities, as opposed to staying indoors and spending longer screen time, can lead to healthier vision. On the contrary, life indoors and enhanced screen time increases the chance of developing nearsightedness or myopia, which can temporarily cause spasms and affect distance vision,” Dr Bhuyan observes.

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“Therefore, in order to keep eyes healthy, children should not be allowed by parents to indulge in screen time beyond online class hours, particularly in this pandemic situation. If they use a bigger desktop screen for online classes, it is still better though,” he suggests.

During the pandemic, dry eye problems among children have surfaced, given their prolonged exposure to digital screens during online classes and beyond.

“Such dryness can affect the eye surface, reduce its bacteria destroying capacity and even make them susceptible to infections such as conjunctivitis,” the ophthalmologist warns.

Moreover, allergy sources such as dust and pollen can also lead to eye redness, watery eyes, itching, etc among kids.

“Longer home confinement has also resulted in reduced distance vision among children who might not be aware of the situation,” he says, while asking guardians to religiously adhere to the periodic follow-ups.

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