Commentary

Excessive screen time can harm a child’s eyesight


 

As an ophthalmologist who’s been performing vision correction surgery in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 20 years, I want to address a rising concern I’ve seen among parents I’ve recently treated who currently have kids at home attending virtual classroom instruction.

Elementary school student typing on keyboard Shelyna Long/Getty Images

Many of these parents are asking me if excessive screen time can be harmful to their children’s developing vision, especially if they are potentially genetically predisposed to myopia – also known as nearsightedness. While the short answer is, yes it can, there are safety measures that parents can put in place to greatly reduce the risk of vision damage caused by eye fatigue caused by long-term screen exposure.

Eye fatigue, also called digital eye strain, is a physical eye discomfort that is caused by excessive screen use, and is a common condition in both children and adults.

Today, more than 40% of Americans are myopic, and that number is increasing at an alarming rate, especially among school-aged children. One in four parents have a child with myopia, and about three quarters of children with myopia were diagnosed between the ages of 3 and 12 years.

A recent ParentsTogether study found that a majority of parents surveyed said they are concerned about a massive spike in their children’s screen time during the coronavirus pandemic. And nearly half of respondents’ children (48%) are currently spending more than 6 hours per day online – a nearly 500% increase from before the crisis.

Dr. Ella Faktorovich

Dr. Ella Faktorovich

While glasses or contact lenses can correct a child’s vision, research in the journal Retina by the Ikuno Eye Center in Osaka, Japan, suggests that having severe myopia puts children at risk for a number of eye problems down the road, including retinal detachment, glaucoma, and macular degeneration. Research published in PLOS ONE found that working up close – such as reading or using a tablet – increased the odds of myopia. And in a report published in Ophthalmology, researchers studying myopia have estimated that, by 2050, about half the world’s population could be myopic.

Watch for warning signs

To determine if excessive screen time is affecting your child, there warning signs to watch out for including the following:

  • Eye irritation.
  • Watery eyes.
  • Headaches.
  • Intermittent blurry vision or double vision.
  • Sore eyes.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Sore neck, shoulders, and/or back.
  • Increased sensitivity to light.
  • Tiredness.
  • Poor posture.

Use these approaches to reduce eye fatigue

To reduce eye fatigue associated with excessive screen exposure, parents should set limits on screen time if possible, and at minimum, schedule between 8 and 15 hours of outdoor activity per week. Screens should be at least 20 centimeters away from the child’s eyes, the child’s desk should be placed near a window, and she should be instructed to look outside every hour. Lastly, children should be kept in fully corrected glasses, not under corrected, and those glasses need to be worn full time.

As we plan the future of education in the age of COVID-19, I firmly believe that schools and policymakers must consider children’s vision needs while designing new initiatives. Schools, teachers, and parents must work together to incorporate eye health strategies that protect children as they learn online. By doing so, we can decrease the chance that a child’s vision becomes compromised from unwittingly staring into a screen for too many hours during the day.

Dr. Faktorovich is an ophthalmologist, founder of Pacific Vision Institute in San Francisco, California, and founder of the annual San Francisco Cornea, Cataract, and Refractive Surgery Symposium. She had no relevant financial disclosures. Email her at [email protected].

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