Since COVID-19 shut classrooms in the spring, kids have spent more time tethered to screens than usual, raising concerns about potential harm to their visual development.
We know that kids aren’t immune to developing tired, dry eyes from concentrating on laptops and tablets for extended periods of time. The discomfort drove some of them to their ophthalmologist, looking for relief.
But this doesn’t mean they need a prescription for computer glasses. And it doesn’t mean that blue light coming from computer screens is damaging their eyes. It means they need to take more frequent breaks.
The simple fact behind the headaches, blurry vision, and tired, dry eyes is that we don’t blink as often while using computers and other digital devices, leaving eyes dry and irritated. And when we focus at the same distance for a long time, it can cause our vision to blur temporarily, and the muscles around the eye to tire, which can cause headaches. Extended reading, writing, or other intensive near work can also cause eye strain.
The 20 minute rule
To fix this problem, ophthalmologists — physicians specializing in medical and surgical eye care — recommend taking a 20 second break from near work every 20 minutes. Here are some tips to help parents remind kids to follow this vital rule.
Set a timer. Whether a kitchen timer or a smart device, use it to remind your child to take a break every 20 minutes.
Alternate reading an e-book with a real book. Encourage children to look up and out the window every two chapters or simply shut their eyes for 20 seconds.
Pre-mark books with paperclips every few chapters. When they reach a paper clip, it will remind them look up. On an e-book, use the “bookmark” function for the same effect.
The importance of ergonomics
Good ergonomics is as important as resting the eyes periodically. We tend to use digital devices at less than ideal distances and angles, which leads to eyestrain. To encourage good posture and better habits, set up a “home office” for your kids. Follow these tips to optimize their workspace.
Make sure they view laptops at arm’s length, about 18 to 24 inches from where they are sitting. Ideally, they should have a monitor positioned at eye level, directly in front of the body. Tablets should also be held at arm’s length.
To reduce glare, position the light source behind the back, not behind the computer screen.
Adjust the brightness and contrast on the screen so that it feels comfortable for them.
Don’t use a device outside or in brightly lit areas; the glare on the screen can cause eye strain.
Avoid using a device in a dark room. As the pupil expands to accommodate the darkness, the brightness of the screen can aggravate after-images and cause discomfort.
Put down the device 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime. Blue light may disrupt sleep. For your procrastinating teens, switch to “night mode” or a similar mode to reduce blue light exposure.
Arguably the easiest way to protect your children’s eyes is to make sure they spend some time outdoors. Studies show that sunlight is beneficial to eyesight. The number of Americans who are nearsighted has nearly doubled over the last 50 years to about 41.6 percent. In Asia, up to 90 percent of teenagers and adults are nearsighted. It remains unclear whether the rise in nearsightedness is due computer use and other near work activities. However, several studies suggest that spending time outdoors, especially in early childhood, can slow the progression of nearsightedness.
Find more information on how to protect your children’s eyes on the Academy’s EyeSmart website.