Is screen time hurting your child’s eyes?

By on 10-10-2019

Simple tips to help avoid eye strain  

Do you remember when your mom or grandma told you not to sit so close to the TV set or you could become cross-eyed or, even worse, go blind from watching too much television? Well, guess what? That wasn’t entirely true but they were onto something. Myopia or nearsightedness (meaning a child has difficulty seeing objects in the distance) has nearly doubled to 42% over the last 50 years. A study in Ophthalmology provides evidence that the increase is partly to do with close-up activities involving using screens, but also due to traditional reading books. 

This makes sense considering how much time kids spend behind screens today. As a pediatrician and a mom for over two decades, I have witnessed the daily use of digital devices for children of all ages increase exponentially - from watching movies and TV shows - to playing games, chatting, and even as an educational tool in schools. And parents increasingly use them for “sharenting”, to provide all types of screen use to keep their child quiet when out to dinner, to soothe when upset, and sometimes as a reward for good behavior. In short, screen time is ubiquitous, portable, and easily accessible at home, at school, and while on the go. 

Much more research needs to be done in this area about why nearsightedness is on the rise but spending more time in nature playing outdoors, particularly for young children, can actually slow the progression of nearsightedness – just another reason to put down the digital devices and get active. Currently, what we do know for sure is that using computers, phones, and tablets can cause digital eye strain, even in kids. 

What is digital eye strain?  

Digital eye strain is a condition that arises from too much up-close eye use. Your child may complain of blurry vision, dry eyes, or a burning sensation. These symptoms can occur with intense focusing and repeated scrolling on a device which makes the eyes dry out from decreased blinking. In addition, overuse can lead to headaches, neck pain, and stress. I even see kids who get nauseous and dizzy from too much screen time. The symptoms can be daily, persistent, and painful. 

The good news is there are some pretty simple solutions. Here are the tips I give to kids and parents to help avoid eye strain and promote good eye health.

 Dr. Jen’s 10 tips to prevent eye strain in kids 

  1. Follow the 20-20-20 rule. Make sure your child takes screen time breaks at least every 20 minutes. Stop, look up and out at an object 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. This will rest your eyes, increase blinking, and decrease eye strain. In any case, remind your child to blink if they have been on a device for an extended period of time.
  2. Glare can also cause eye strain. Avoid using digital devices in bright light or outside.
  3. Monitor and limit total daily screen time. The easiest way to do this is to use a parental control app. I like Qustodio. 
  4. Put away devices during meals and power off devices at least an hour before bed time.
  5. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screens before age 18 months as education and learning is better developed through creative, hands-on physical play, and interacting with caregivers. For toddlers, watch screens together, and limit to about one hour a day of high quality programming. 
  6. If the air in your home is very dry, consider using a cool mist humidifier in the room which will keep mucus membranes like eyes, nose, and mouth from feeling dry.
  7. Prioritize outdoor play whenever possible. Walk the dog, play catch, watch the clouds go by.
  8. Read books in paper form instead of digital format.
  9. Make sure that digital media does not take the place of getting adequate sleep, exercise, nutrition, and quality family time.
  10. And last but not least, make sure to have children keep handheld devices between 18-24 inches away (45-60 cm) rather than right under their noses. See, Mom was right. :)
Dr. Jen Trachtenberg

Jen Trachtenberg, MD, is a nationally renowned parenting expert and board-certified pediatrician. Passionate about helping moms and dads be the best parents they can be, her mission is to maximize the potential within every child. She is also the mother of three children.

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