This generation of kids are growing up with screens, but what's the effect that has on their eyes? Read our blog to learn more.

A common conversation in today’s child rearing circles includes the effect of electronics on our children. What is the social, emotional and physical effects of growing up in a “screen time” technology driven culture?

Previous posts have addressed social concerns such as a shift in language and the role screen time can have in establishing relationships. Emotional considerations, such as increase in anxiety symptoms and irritability, have also been discussed. Physical effects, such as decreased focus and concerns for language development, have been linked to excessive use of screen time as well.

Recent research suggests there is a link between amount of time a child spends looking at a screen and eye disease. More specifically, dry eye disease and nearsightedness are getting more attention as we examine the impact screen time can have on our children’s eye health.


Dry Eye Disease

Dry eye disease is a condition that occurs when the eyes don’t produce enough tears. Symptoms include red swollen eyes, eye discomfort, sensitivity to light and dryness. Dry eye disease is mostly associated with an older population although specialists believe it is under-diagnosed in children. A variety of factors contribute to this under-diagnosis including presentation of symptoms, self report and access to regular vision check ups. 

Today’s child is looking at some kind of screen and average of seven hours a day. This includes screens for pleasure and for academics. So between phones, laptops, tablets and televisions, our children collectively spend up to half of their waking hours looking at some kind of screen. 

When we stare at screens, we blink less which means our tear film evaporates faster and our risk of dry-eye disease increases. Consider the longer term impact this could have on children. How do they feel with dry, uncomfortable eyes? It’s safe to assume this also has the potential to increase irritability and decrease focus in the classroom.  

Here are some things to consider in order to reduce risk of your child developing dry eye disease:

1. Your Child’s Baseline 

Start off with a thorough eye exam so you and the doctor are aware of any predisposition your child may have to dry eye disease and his/her overall eye health.

2. Limit Screen Time

There’s a wealth of data to suggest excessive screen time has negative impacts socially, emotionally and physically. Engaging in outdoor or creative play, instead of relying on looking at screens is recommended especially for younger children.

3. Build-in Breaks 

If you child need to be looking at a screen for extended periods, experts recommend incorporating regular breaks. The suggested guideline is the 20-20 rule. For every 20 minutes of screen time, allow your eyes to rest for at least 20 seconds.

 

Nearsightedness

Nearsightedness is a condition where an individual has trouble seeing clearly images at a distance but is able to see clearly what is at a closer range. 

A large study conducted by the National Eye Institute and published in the December 2009 issue of Archives of Ophthalmology found that the prevalence of nearsightedness among Americans has increased from 25 percent to 41.6 percent of the population over the past 30 years — an increase of more than 66 percent. 

This increase is significant and has researchers asking, what has contributed to this large increase? Likely a combination of genetic and environmental factors have led to this shift. One factor to consider is the amount of time individuals spend on screens now as opposed to decades ago. 

When our children are spending hours looking at screens, there is a potential for this to have a direct physiological effect on the shape of their eyes during development. Children are focusing on closer images more now with the addition of technology. 

In comparison, when a child is outside their eye naturally is drawn to the world around them, in a broad scope. When a child is looking at a screen, their eyes are forced to focus on a smaller scaled image. This difference in focus can result in the changing shape, potentially causing nearsightedness.

More information is needed to specify the connection between screen time and nearsightedness. It’s important for your child to have regular eye exams to determine whether he/she needed corrective lenses or further ophthalmological care. Biological factors, such as parental eye health along with environmental factors, such as screen time, need to be examined.


What the Experts Say 

According to the American Optometric Association (AOA), parents should consider these factors affecting children and computer use:

  • Children may not be aware of how much time they are spending at a computer. They may perform a task on the computer for hours with few breaks. This prolonged activity can cause eye focusing and eye strain problems.

  • Children are very adaptable. They assume that what they see and how they see is normal, even if their vision is problematic. That's why it is important for parents to monitor the time a child spends working at a computer and make sure they have regular eye exams as directed by their optometrist or ophthalmologist.

  • Children are smaller than adults. Since computer workstations often are arranged for adult use, this can change the viewing angle for young children. Computer users should view the screen slightly downward, at a 15-degree angle. Also, if a child has difficulty reaching the keyboard or placing their feet comfortably on the floor, he or she may experience neck, shoulder and/or back pain.

About Annemarie Lange

Annemarie Lange is a licensed professional counselor in the Philadelphia area that utilizes mindfulness and meditation to help her clients deal with a variety of challenges.

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