Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 18, 2024

How online learning can affect student health

By AMRITA BALRAM | April 20, 2020


CC BY 2.0

Director of the Hopkins Pediatric Sleep Center Dr. Laura Sterni expressed her concern that digital learning will disrupt student sleep.  

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic rapidly spread across the country, schools have shut their doors and classes have moved online in order to slow the spread. The transition to online learning has impacted not only teachers, who have had to amend their courses, but also students who have had to adjust to a new learning environment. 

One of the major consequences of the transition to online learning is its impact on student health, specifically sleep habits. Students in different time zones than their institutions are now sacrificing sleep to wake up for classes on Zoom. Matthew Walker, a sleep scientist at Google and professor of neuroscience at the University of California at Berkeley, explained how a lack of sleep can affect learning outcomes in his research article titled “The sleep-deprived human brain.” Walked wrote that sleep deprivation causes deficits in the prefrontal cortex, which normally keeps our amygdala, the emotional and impulse region of the brain, in check. 

Virtual learning has inevitably increased the amount of time students spend on digital devices everyday. Sophomore student Divisha Jaiswal is an international student from India. She noted that online learning has resulted in a significant increase in her personal electronic use in an interview with The News-Letter

“I spend around eight to 10 more hours on my laptop on a weekly basis because of the switch to remote instruction,” she said.

In an interview with The News-Letter, Director of the Hopkins Pediatric Sleep Center Dr. Laura Sterni expressed her concern that digital learning will disrupt student sleep. 

“The risk is that the technology becomes all-consuming and, as a sleep doctor, I worry most about the potential negative impact on sleep,” she said.

In addition to adverse health impacts from altered sleep cycles, increased digital use can affect student’s physical and mental health. Jennifer Katzenstein, director of psychology and neuropsychology at the Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, has observed the impact of remote learning on children of all ages. 

Katzenstein explained that college students in particular are struggling to create an environment free of distractions and develop the necessary organizational skills to stay on top of their assignments, noting that these difficulties can affect students’ mental health.

“Increased screen time usage, especially for non-academic activities, has been found to be linked with increases in depression, anxiety and perceived attention problems,” Katzenstein said. 

Many international students who are now in different time zones have had to adjust their sleep cycle in order to attend class. Altering regular sleep patterns affects the body’s circadian rhythm, or internal biological clock. Katzenstein explained that the circadian rhythm is based on light exposure, which is maintained by waking up when there is light out and going to sleep when it is dark. She added that increased screen time can have a negative impact on rhythm. 

“Light exposure in the a.m. helps us wake up, and decreasing light exposure in the evening helps you fall asleep through nocturnal melatonin induction,” she said. “Exposure to light in the evening, especially blue light from our computer screens may suppress nocturnal melatonin secretion and alter circadian rhythms.”

Katzenstein explained that health effects associated with not sticking to a regular sleep cycle include difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up and daytime fatigue.

When asked what students should do to maintain their health while learning remotely, both Katzenstein and Sterni stressed the importance of getting adequate sleep. They noted that young adults should seek to sleep for seven to nine hours each night. Sterni offered tips on how to decompress before bed to encourage rest.

“Be sure to turn off your electronics and do something relaxing the hour before bed — read a book, listen to music,” Sterni said. 

Online learning has also affected the physical activity levels of students. Not walking between classes has made some students stationary for hours on end in front of their computers. Jaiswal expressed that she wishes she could be active, like she was on campus. 

“I really do miss the walks, and just sitting at my laptop makes me feel extremely sluggish and lazy,” Jaiswal said.

Katzenstein and Sterni both recommend staying physically active and eating healthy during remote learning. While this transition has posed many challenges, they both recommend that students prioritize their health and sleep. 

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