Online Learning and Mental Health

August 25, 2021

During the last year, online learning became the norm for many families and schools. It has proven to be a mental health challenge for students, teachers, and parents alike. Students have felt isolated, teachers have faced numerous frustrations, and parents have struggled to manage their new role as teacher’s assistant.

Whether you’re a student or an educator, these challenges may have put a strain on your mental health. Those who were already suffering from mental health issues found that online learning and quarantine made these issues worse. For others, it created mental health issues that previously weren’t there. Online learning brought to the forefront the need to look at the role mental health plays in education.

Virtual learning has illuminated the importance of socialization in education and the fact that many students struggle to stay motivated when they’re isolated from their peer groups. The social aspect of spending time in the school environment is more important to a student’s success and mental health than previously acknowledged.

Online Versus In-Person Learning

Online learning is different from in-person learning in many ways. Online learning puts the focus on you completing assignments and developing autonomy in the learning process. Many schools don’t require the camera to be used, which can make it easier to feel like you’re not grounded — or fully present — in the learning environment. You’re isolated from friends and the classroom camaraderie that motivates you to stay academically competitive with your classmates.

In addition, online learning requires you to be on electronic devices for extended periods of time. According to experts, excessive screen time can lead to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and sleep problems.

In-person learning allows you to interact and use social cues from your peers to stay focused on the task at hand. Academically challenged students can quickly get help from their classmates and use social signals to follow along. The physical classroom and in-person learning experience create a connection between classmates, and the academically stronger students are able to assist their peers who may be struggling with assignments. Students bond over the mutual classroom experience.

Online learning impacts mental health differently than in-person learning because, while the content may be the same, the presentation and your consumption of the material is not. The online school experience doesn’t provide you with the social side, which is necessary for both social and emotional learning.

Effects of Online Learning

The difficulties that you’ll face as a student or a teacher in an online learning environment are complex. They range from “Zoom fatigue” to depression and anxiety. In more severe cases, these difficulties can lead to substance abuse as a coping mechanism.

Virtual Learning Fatigue

Virtual learning fatigue, or Zoom fatigue, is affecting students and educators from elementary to college level. Too many hours in a virtual classroom is exhausting for everyone involved. Your brain processes a lot of information when you’re interacting face-to-face. You are filtering constant communication cues, such as tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. Without those communication cues to follow, your brain must work harder to interpret interactions. It is constantly adjusting and reevaluating the situation and, without the help of those physical cues, your overworked brain suffers from excessive mental fatigue. You may also experience the strain and constant self-awareness of being on camera. With all of these factors, it’s easy to understand why video classrooms are exhausting.

Academic Performance

Quarantine and isolation have stolen the motivation from many students. Students lack motivation, and it shows in their academic performance. Poor academic performance can lead to a lack of self-confidence and create a cycle that is difficult for some students to break.  Negative changes in academic performance can lead to students acting out and expressing their frustration through bad behavior and poor choices, leading to depression, anxiety, and sometimes substance abuse, which further complicates mental health issues.

Depression and Anxiety

According to recent research, online learning can lead to or exacerbate depression and anxiety, because adjusting to new routines and learning environments creates a tremendous amount of stress. Navigating the new normal of distance learning is another stressor on top of the regular school stressors that students already had.

Children and teens thrive when they have a predictable routine. Routines provide a safe place for children. When their routines changed due to Covid-19 quarantine and new online learning classrooms, it created fear, which can lead to depression and anxiety. Many students struggled to navigate the tech aspect of online classes. Learning at home became an unwelcome challenge. For many students, the extra effort of managing class assignments, timetables, and virtual materials left them feeling incredibly overwhelmed.

Positive Effects

Despite the problems online learning created for students and parents this year, it wasn’t all bad news. Some students were actually able to benefit from online learning at home. Many students excelled academically during this time due to being at home, in a comfortable environment where they felt safe. They may have felt that the fear and worry associated with living through a global pandemic was more manageable at home with family, where they felt cared for and connected. In some cases, students who experienced bullying at school found that online learning felt like a safer environment than traditional school, and they were able to focus on academic success.

Managing Online Learning

A main factor that makes online learning so stressful is isolation from your peers. Online learning affects everyone in different ways. If you already have mental health challenges, isolation in a distance-learning environment can make it worse. Even if you don’t have a mental health condition to manage, you may start to have difficulty with maintaining a positive outlook and could begin to develop negative feelings.

If you’re a parent of a child who is learning virtually, look for signs that your child is at risk for mental health issues. Students don’t always say what they need. You may need to decipher their behavior and open the channels of communication. Communication is vital for teens, who are usually less open to discussing their emotional state.

Signs that your child may be suffering mental health issues include:

  • Lack of concentration, poor memory
  • Changes in appetite
  • Feeling sad and hopeless
  • Loss of interest in their favorite activities
  • Excessive worry and concern about the future
  • Changes in sleep
  • Expressing anger in outbursts
  • Not wanting to be around people or take part in activities
  • New behaviors and rituals that are repeated — this could be a sign of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Extreme mood swings, which could be a sign of substance use
  • Changes in clothing style, which could be a sign of self-harm

How to Help Students and Teachers

If you’re a teacher, online learning is stressful because you must take your teaching methods and transfer them to the virtual classroom. It’s challenging to create an engaging lesson in a virtual format, and many teachers haven’t been trained in this way. As an educator, you need to constantly juggle your roles as you try and teach the material, connect with your students, and design engaging classroom activities.

Teachers and students need extra support to effectively manage the virtual classroom, and it takes the efforts of everyone involved to make online learning a success.

What can parents do to help their students?

  • Provide a distraction-free space to study.
  • Encourage healthy habits: healthy snacks, rest, and physical activity.
  • Keep a positive attitude and open communication.

What can teachers do to support their students?

  • Give students opportunities to interact with their classmates through group and pair work.
  • Understand that students are struggling, and adjust lesson plans and expectations when needed.
  • Show empathy for their students’ emotional health.

What can institutions do to support their educators?

  • Provide opportunities for educators to connect and socially interact.
  • Give training on new technologies and platforms. Help educators succeed by giving them the tools and support they need.
  • Be understanding and flexible. Educators have families, too, and may be struggling with the demands of work and family. Remind educators of the mental health benefits in the health insurance plans and encourage them to seek help if needed.

Future of Online Learning

Online learning looks like it will be here to stay. Virtual and distance learning is taking education in a new direction. It’s a welcome way for students dealing with bullying and anxiety to learn and be successful at school. You and your family may choose to continue with online learning, or you may be happily awaiting the return to the classroom, where student peers keep each other motivated to succeed.

One of the major takeaways from this time is that learning is individual, and different learning styles are vital in helping students gain confidence in their abilities. Parents and educators can learn from this impromptu experiment in online learning that all students can succeed in education, given the right tools.

Mental health is an essential aspect of success. As parents and educators become more aware of the signs of deteriorating mental health, you can help students work through any mental health challenges that come up and assist them in learning, whether online or in person.

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