Kids today grow up around technology and since it’s a big part of adults’ lives, it, in turn, becomes a big part of theirs. A study found that in Canada, children between the ages of three and five spend an average of two hours per day in front of a screen (a television, tablet, cell phone, e-reader, laptop or computer). A different study uncovered that school-aged kids, aged eight to 11, have an average of 3.6 hours per day of screen time. With the increase in device usage among children comes an increase in the frequency of digital eye strain, sometimes also called computer vision syndrome. Yup. That eye fatigue, irritation and even the headache you often experience after a day of working on your laptop doesn’t just strike adults. Well, the Spectacle Shoppe is here to help with our guide to kids and digital eye strain.
What is Digital Eye Strain?
When a child, or anyone for that matter, stares at a digital screen, especially for more than two hours, it can affect vision and cause issues like blurry eyesight or eye fatigue and irritation. Digital eye strain occurs because the eyes are working harder than usual. Words and images on a screen are not as well defined as they are on a page, the contrast isn’t as stark and kids are often combatting glare and reflections. In addition to the screen itself, posture, lighting, viewing distances and angles can create even more demand on the eyes as far as their movement and focusing requirements. Uncorrected, underlying vision problems, like nearsightedness, astigmatism or farsightedness, can exacerbate the problem. Since children’s eyes are still developing, they are especially susceptible to computer vision syndrome.
What are the Digital Eye Strain Symptoms?
Digital eye strain symptoms for children, include:
- Blurry, hazy or double vision
- Burning eyes
- Irritated or itchy eyes
- Dry eyes
- Eye fatigue
- Neck and shoulder pain
While these symptoms appear pretty straightforward, the issue of kids and digital eye strain is actually complex because children, especially younger ones, can’t always verbalize exactly what is wrong. Computer vision syndrome may instead present as irritability, difficulty concentrating or poor behavior. Most of the symptoms are temporary and will go away after your little one stops looking at the screen. However, sometimes, kids experience things like blurry distance vision for long after they put the device down and it can continue to worsen over time. Research has also found a correlation between myopia (nearsightedness) and increased computer use, which is why experts are concerned that significant screen time will have more permanent consequences for kids’ vision.
What are the Effects of Blue Light?
Compounding the matter is blue light. You may have heard the term in recent years. Blue light, technically high-energy visible light (HEV), is next to ultraviolet (UV) light on the light spectrum. You can’t escape blue light since it’s found in both natural and man-made sources, including the sun, fluorescent and LED lighting, television screens and digital devices. That’s okay because some blue light is good for kids. For example, the blue light from the sun is important because it helps to control circadian rhythms, improves mood and increases alertness. But, most people are also only exposed to the direct sunlight for a short amount of time each day. Because of the frequency of digital device use and how close kids hold the devices to their faces, there are concerns about the long-term effects of artificial blue light on eye health. Unfortunately, the human eye does not do a great job of blocking it out and it reaches the retina. Since the lens and cornea in children under the age of 10 are still mainly transparent and not fully developed, they have an even greater risk of retinal damage than teenagers or adults.
Blue light is a major contributor to digital eye strain. The light has a short wavelength and scatters. Because of this, when a child is staring at a digital device, the blue light is not as focused and it creates visual “noise” and reduces contrast. Like we noted earlier, this causes the eyes to work harder to focus, leading to digital eye strain. Beyond causing digital eye strain, prolonged blue light exposure may be tied to an increase risk of macular degeneration later in life. Macular degeneration can cause permanent vision loss. Also, using blue light-emitting devices at night can suppress melatonin, decreasing sleep quality and causing insomnia. That’s why it is a good idea to have kids stay away from digital devices for at least several hours before going to bed.
How is Digital Eye Strain Diagnosed?
In most cases, you can determine whether or not your child is suffering from digital eye strain just by assessing their symptoms and factoring in how much screen time they have each day. That will allow you to then take measures for preventing digital eye strain, which, in all honesty, is a good idea to do regardless of whether or not they exhibit signs of computer vision syndrome. An eye care professional can make a formal diagnosis too. This is what is typically involved in diagnosing computer vision syndrome:
Taking your child’s history – Your eye doctor will ask about your kiddo’s symptoms, their device usage, medications they take and other environmental factors that could be at the root of their eye problems.
A standard eye exam – They will also want to note if your child needs vision correction for a refractive error like astigmatism, nearsightedness or farsightedness since these things can make digital eye strain much worse.
Tests for visual acuity, as well as how the eyes focus and work together – The doctor will test your child’s visual acuity, how well they focus, how the eyes move and, also, how both eyes work together. They may or may not use eye drops for the tests.
If your child is diagnosed with digital eye strain, there isn’t one, specific treatment for it. Your doctor may suggest special lens coatings or, in some cases when it’s related to problems with focusing and eye coordination, vision therapy. Yet, typically, your eye care professional will recommend taking certain preventative measures, which we’ll get to next.
Preventing Digital Eye Strain in Children
The good news is, even if your child is prone to digital eye strain, while, yes, it is important to limit screen time to a reasonable degree, you don’t have to ban devices altogether or swear off any and all screen time for kids. Once they start school that would be fairly impossible anyway. There are plenty of steps you can take to control eye fatigue and keep your child’s vision crisp and healthy.
- Position the computer screen optimally. If your child is doing homework or playing games at a desk, have them look downward at the screen. The computer screen should be about four to five inches below eye level (measured from the center of the screen) and 20 to 28 inches from the eyes. If they are using reference materials like a book or a handout, position the materials in a way so that your child doesn’t have to move their head to look back and forth from the document to the screen. You can do this by setting up a document holder right next to the monitor.
- For handheld devices, follow similar guidelines as you would with a desktop or laptop screen. Have kids hold the device below eye level and at a good distance from their face.
- Posture is key! Adjustable office chairs are ideal (sorry, sofa!). The height of the chair should be adjusted so that your child’s feet are flat on the floor while they are at the computer. Have them sit up straight with their shoulders back and down and away from the ears.
- Increase the size of the text on digital devices. Make it as easy to read as possible. Adjust the brightness of screens too, as well as the contrast. Try to avoid bright white backgrounds (cool grey is easier on the eyes).
- Be gentle with overhead lighting. It might seem like getting as much light as possible would help kids see more clearly but it actually causes a glare, worsening digital eye strain. Position the screen so that it’s not reflecting light from the windows or lamps to keep glare at bay. You’ll also want to consider using lower wattage light bulbs in desk lamps or in places where your child frequently uses devices and making sure to draw the blinds or curtains, if necessary.
- Try a glare screen filter to lessen the amount of light that the screen reflects if you are not able to escape a glare from the lighting or windows. The filters are available for a variety of devices and, as an added bonus, often prevent scratches too.
Remind your child to blink. Staring at a screen causes kids to blink less often, leading to dry eyes. Experts say the blink rate drops from 15 times per minute to as low as five times per minute when looking at a screen. Conscious, regular blinking while using devices will re-establish the tear film to keep the eyes lubricated and ward off blurry vision.
- Follow the 20-20-20 rule. For every 20 minutes your child looks at a screen, they should look at an object 20 feet away in the distance for 20 seconds. This allows the eyes to refocus.
- Take frequent breaks. Kids should get up during their 20 minute breaks and quickly stretch to get rid of neck, shoulder and back tension. After an hour or two of continuous device use, like in the case of typing a term paper or engaging in a serious study session, it is important to take a longer break and let the eyes rest for 15 minutes. It wouldn’t hurt to encourage little ones to occasionally go outside for breaks. This will also help relieve tension, give their eyes something new to look at and it’s good for their health and wellbeing. There is also research that shows spending time outdoors can reduce the risk of developing nearsightedness!
Take your child for regular eye exams. It’s recommended kids have a yearly eye exam and it’s typically covered by insurance for anyone under the age of 19. While your child may have vision screenings at school, these aren’t the same as a comprehensive exam, which looks at a number of factors. Be sure to talk honestly with your child’s eye doctor about their screen time. If they have underlying conditions like a refractive error or focusing problem that makes computer vision syndrome worse, it can be treated to enhance their comfort when using devices.
- Try special lens coatings on both non-prescription and prescription lenses. Today, there are anti-reflective coatings that significantly reduce glare, as well as coatings that filter out blue light. Blue light blocking glasses might sound like the latest fad but they are incredibly effective and helpful. At the Spectacle Shoppe, we can apply coatings with blue light blocking filters that block the harmful HEV light but let it in the helpful blue-turquoise light, which regulates things like your child’s sleep/wake cycle, mood and memory. You don’t have to spring for any special computer glasses either. It’s all about the lens coating, so you can make your child’s everyday eyewear pull double duty.
Set healthy limits on screen time for kids. Like we said, there’s no need to ban all devices but some limits are good. Since digital eye strain tends to set in for most people after looking at a screen for two hours straight, keeping continuous use under the two-hour mark is beneficial. This is in line with the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth, which suggests two hours or less of recreational screen time daily for kids.
There you have it, our guide to kids and digital eye strain. Taking measures to prevent eye strain like holding devices the correct distance from the face and putting practical limits on screen time can go a long way. If you need an extra boost, swing by the Spectacle Shoppe in Kerrisdale. We can help you find the perfect coatings for your child’s eyeglass lenses to reduce glare and filter blue light for more comfortable, clear vision.
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