Aching backs and eye strain? How to set up a healthy virtual learning environment for your child

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A few weeks after distance learning began, my son began complaining of aches and pains, mainly in his back. As a longtime remote worker myself, I was instantly familiar with his gripes. Hours spent hunched over a laptop can cause all sorts of back, arm, neck, and eye strains, even in children. The pandemic has made things worse by increasing the number of hours that children are spending in front of a computer and reducing the time spent walking to classes or otherwise moving around at school. When the pain is constant or your child begins talking about tingling in their hands and feet, it’s time for an intervention. Luckily, relief is easy with just a few simple steps.

Build in breaks

First, try setting a timer every 20 or 30 minutes to encourage your kiddo to stand up and move around. Turn it into a game with special moves the two of you come up with, anything to make it fun. Even just walking around the room where they’re learning or standing up to stretch for a few minutes will do wonders to get the blood flowing, preventing the tightening of the muscles and joints. 

For their eyes, follow the 20/20/20 rule: every 20 minutes, look up from the computer at something at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Changing the depth of focus periodically like this helps alleviate eye strain, which can otherwise cause symptoms like headaches, dry eyes, and double vision. This can be timed to coincide with their movement breaks, but you can also set reminders to appear directly on the screen so your child doesn’t forget. For example, Google Chrome extensions like EyeCare will pop up with a reminder notification at intervals and can even suggest eye exercises to do during the break.

Change the scenery

Whenever they’re doing something that doesn’t require the computer, such as an art project or a reading session, have them sit on the floor, the sofa, or let them stand for a bit while they work on a different surface. Just make sure they don’t stretch out on the sofa or get under the covers in bed. The idea is to keep them working and moving but in a different position. 

Address work station woes

Next, look at the main learning tool your child is using: the laptop. It’s easy to forget that while laptops are convenient, they’re designed to be moved around, not sat at for hours. If it’s at all possible, provide your child a wireless keyboard and mouse and place the laptop on a stack of books or a cardboard box so that the top of the screen is at eye level (this goes for adults, too). This will significantly reduce neck, shoulder, back, and eye strain almost instantly.

Many external keyboard and mouse sets can be found for less than $20, a relatively small investment to avoid wrist, hand, and neck injuries as well as conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome, especially if your child will be distance learning for an extended period.

When your kiddo is working, proper arm, back, and leg positioning are also important. If you’re using a dining table, coffee table, or anything other than a desk for your child’s workspace, look for something that will allow your child to rest their elbows and forearms comfortably on top, not something that forces them to reach or strain. A chair that allows your little one’s knees to stay at 90 degrees with their feet resting flat on the floor is ideal. If you have a younger child in kindergarten or preschool, a coffee table paired with a child’s chair may be a better bet than a traditional desk. If they have to use an adult chair, try placing a cushion under them to add height, and place a small lumbar pillow at their back to fill in the gap between their body and the chair, minimizing the hunching posture. 

Slipping a footrest under the desk or table is also a good idea (a box or pouf will work fine in a pinch). This encourages kids to rest their feet, relieving pressure on the lower back, plus it can help little ones whose feet don’t yet touch the ground.

Finally, they’re not cheap, but ergonomic experts say today’s sit/stand desks are ideal for avoiding all kinds of strain. They can be adjusted throughout the day depending on how your body feels, something that might be tough for little kids to do on their own. But for middle and high school students, being able to switch back and forth can relieve neck and shoulder strain significantly. 

Even small tweaks to their routine and work flow can have a huge impact on minimizing the aches and spins that are otherwise an inevitable part of distance learning. 

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.