Limiting screen time can be an ongoing chore for parents, but it’s important for many reasons. Increased time on digital devices affects cognitive development, social and emotional development, and sleep cycles. It’s also linked to higher rates of obesity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children.
Surveys indicate that over 50% of parents don’t realize that screen time also has a major impact on their children’s eye health and vision. Taking a child’s phone or computer away may not be feasible, but there are many other ways parents can protect kids from the harmful effects of digital devices.
Eye issues associated with excessive screen time
These are some eye conditions kids can experience after viewing screens for prolonged periods.
Asthenopia is a term for eye strain, which includes symptoms of eye irritation, tearing, tiredness, light sensitivity, and headaches. Although kids may not always complain of these symptoms, you might notice them rubbing their eyes frequently or avoiding homework and reading if they have asthenopia
Eye strain results from overusing the eyes without adequate breaks and can be exacerbated by glare on the screen. Children also tend to stare intensely and hold screens closer to their faces, making asthenopia worse.
Focusing and binocularity issues
A child’s eyes have the natural ability to adjust their focus – increasing their focusing power to see up close and relaxing their focus to see far away. Similarly, the eye muscles are finely tuned to coordinate eye movements – turning the eyes inward to focus at near and straightening them out to see into the distance.
Prolonged time spent staring at a screen can stress the eye’s focusing and binocularity systems. Like any muscle in the body, eye muscles can become fatigued. As a result, children can develop blurry vision, headaches, and double vision. Tasks like tracking words on a page or shifting focus from a near to far object become more tedious, which may interfere with learning.
Myopia, or nearsightedness, is a growing epidemic. Over 42% of children in the United States have myopia, and numbers are steadily increasing. Myopia primarily causes blurry vision at a distance. High amounts of myopia are also associated with eye diseases such as glaucoma and retinal detachment.
Many studies suggest a link between myopia, increased near activities (including screen time), and decreased outdoor time. In contrast, increased exposure to sunlight can help the eye’s development and slow the progression of myopia.
Dry eyes are a common issue after digital device use. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize that their blinking rate decreases when staring at a screen, leading to dryness, irritation, redness, and tired eyes. This is especially true for children, who may stare intently at a phone or computer when engaged in an activity!
How to protect your child’s eyes
Building healthy habits can be difficult, but there are some easy ways you can protect kids’ eyes and overall health.
- Prescription glasses. The optometrist can determine whether your child needs reading, distance, or full-time glasses. Glasses relieve asthenopia, improve focusing and binocularity problems, correct myopia, and address many other vision issues. Blue light blocking lenses provide additional glare reduction and protect the eyes from blue light. Blue light is emitted from digital devices and can disrupt sleep.
- 20/20/20 rule. Prohibiting screen time isn’t always practical or realistic. Instead, encourage children to take breaks every 20 minutes by looking at something 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. This rule is a great way to relax the eyes and encourage blinking. Teach kids to set a timer to help them remember when to take a break.
- Reduce screen time before bed. To promote healthier sleep, limit digital devices in the evening and stop one to two hours before bed.
- Spend more time outside. Outdoor activities are excellent for enriching a child’s social and emotional development, but their eyes can also benefit. Getting about 60 minutes of indirect sun exposure each day can help prevent the development of myopia and give tired eyes a break from the screen. Of course, sunglasses and sunscreen are still essential for protection from the sun’s damaging rays.
- Hold the screen at an appropriate distance. The Harmon distance is measured by placing the fist under the chin and holding reading material at the tip of the elbow. Any phone should be no closer than this distance to optimize visual comfort. Computer screens should be an additional six inches away or more. This distance is an easy way to ensure your child’s eyes aren’t putting in unnecessary effort!
- Artificial tears. Lubricating eye drops combat symptoms of dry eye. They can be used as needed before, during, and after screen time. Although there are many formulations to choose from, it’s best to avoid redness relief drops, which have a medication that can be harmful to the eyes if used regularly.
Finally, routine eye exams are essential for a child’s wellbeing. The eyes develop rapidly during childhood, and regular eye exams help make sure any problems are detected and treated as early as possible. Many eye issues, such as amblyopia (lazy eye), are easier to treat in children and more challenging in adults. Having healthy vision for life starts at an early age!
Grzybowski, A., et al. (2020). A review on the epidemiology of myopia in school children worldwide. BMC Ophthalmology.
Hill, D., et al. (2016). Media and Young Minds. Pediatrics.
Sheppard, A.L., Wolffsohn, J.S. (2018). Digital eye strain: prevalence, measurement and amelioration. BMJ Open Ophthalmology.