How Screen Time Is Impacting Your Child's Eyes

September 15, 2019 | VisionQuest Eyecare

Getting your children to look into your eyes is a challenge – and not because they are shy.

How many times have you tried to get their attention, only to find them focused on their smart phone or computer screen.

It’s a challenge in today’s culture.

A 2017 report in Common Sense Media showed that American children ages 0 to 8 use screen media for an average of 2 hours and 19 minutes each day. These numbers have changed only slightly in the past 6 years. Children under age 2 spend about 42 minutes, children ages 2 to 4 spend 2 hours and 40 minutes, and kids ages 5 to 8 spend nearly 3 hours (2:58) with screen media daily.

How has this time on computer and device screens impacted eye health?

Healthline.com says it has resulted in eye strain, blurred vision and shortsightedness among our youth. The website found that the percentage of kids 13 to 16 years old who need glasses has nearly doubled in less than a decade.

new study from United Kingdom-based eye care company Scrivens Opticians that said 35 percent of those ages 13 to 16 needed glasses in 2018. That’s up from 20 percent in 2012. Two-thirds of those children received diagnoses of nearsightedness.

The Effects of Screens

Children have been staring at multiple screens for at least a couple decades. It’s culturally inescapable and practically necessary for school, work, and binge-watching Netflix. Parents admonished their kids in the 1960s and 1970s for sitting too close to the big boxy televisions of the day. But computers and cell phones have been household staples for about a generation now.

Doctors are seeing more cases of glaucoma and retinal myopic degeneration in recent years that can likely be attributed to increased screen time. These conditions used to occur primarily in people in their 60s, 70s and 80s.

Today’s children, unlike most before them, engage electronic devices for most of their lives. Young kids tend to hold screens closer to sensitive eyes. Even having shorter arms has an effect.

The American Optometric Association publishes a Healthy Vision Using Digital Devices fact sheet, which points out devices “pose more challenges” and have grown smaller, creating a greater strain on eyes.

Dr. Ryan Parker is an optometrist and the director of professional education at the eyewear company Essilor of America. He says researchers are still in the early stages of understanding the long-term effects of extended screen time on children.

“Blue light damages the retina,” Parker told Healthline. “It’s cumulative over time and there is a link to being indoors and myopia progression. There is a range of wavelengths of light that is damaging to the retina, which most digital devices emit. The sun is the biggest single emitter of that light.”

“The difference between now from 15 years ago is that we are exposed to higher amounts of that light indoors,” Parker noted.

Advice for Parents

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children younger than 18 months should not use any screen media except for video chatting, and that until age 5 children should be limited to one hour of screen time per day.

The American Optometric Association recommends the 20-20-20 rule, which says human eyes need a 20-second break from screens every 20 minutes to look at something 20 feet away.

The organization also says users should take a 15-minute break for every two hours spent on a device.

Parents can also fight tech with tech.

There’s light-filtering technology and device settings can be changed to control the amount of light bombarding sensitive eyes.

The same parenting rules apply to screen time as to anything else — set a good example, establish limits, and talk with your child about it.

To make your children’s screen time more productive:

  • Be with young kids during screen time and interact with them. That can mean playing an educational game with your child or talking about something you see together in an age-appropriate TV show or video.
  • Research games and apps before getting them for your child. There are thousands of apps and games that claim to be educational, but not all of them are. Search online to see which ones educators and doctors consider the best.
  • Schedule plenty of non-screen time into your child's day. Unstructured playtime is important for building creativity, so young children should have time to play away from screens every day. Family meals and bedtimes are also important times to put the screens away and interact with your child.   
  • Keep devices with screens out of your child's bedroom after bedtime, and don't allow a TV in your child's bedroom.

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