05 Sep 6 Tips for Keeping Your Kids’ Eyes Healthy During Virtual Learning
September 5th, 2020 By Deborah Zanella, O.D.
With the dawn of COVID-19, social distancing, and remote learning, many children are spending hours each day staring at a computer screen. Concerned parents are wondering what risks extra screen time poses to their kids’ eyes and what precautions should be taken. In this article, I will discuss some common causes of digital eye strain or discomfort and some practical solutions.
- Get their eyes checked out by an eye doctor!
The accommodative or focusing system in kids is stronger than in adults, so many children who actually need glasses can pass a vision test at school or their pediatrician’s office. It is one thing for the eye muscles responsible for focusing to have to work for 30 seconds while reading a vision chart, but quite another for them to work for hours during school. Furthermore, some vision screenings only check distance visual acuity. Just because a child can read 20/20 at distance does not indicate clear, comfortable near vision. If your child has never had a comprehensive eye examination or if they are experiencing headaches, eye strain or avoid reading, schedule an eye exam ASAP.
- Check the glare and lighting situation.
Glare is a very common cause of digital eye strain, and should be avoided as much as possible. Position the computer screen so that there is not noticeable glare hitting the screen. If the room has windows, it is best to have any sunlight coming from the side and not from in front of or behind the screen. If your child wears prescription eyeglasses, make sure the lenses are anti-reflective so there is no additional glare induced from his or her lenses. While you don’t want so much light that glare is present, you also want sufficient light. If lighting is poor, the accommodative system has to work extra hard to focus and see. Find the balance between good lighting that allows one to see without creating glare.
- Check the ergonomics.
The computer screen should be about 20 inches from your child’s face. (Or about arm’s length.) When a screen is too close to the eyes, the accommodative system has to work extra hard. If your child insists he or she has to hold something very close to see, he or she may have a visual condition that needs to be evaluated. Screens should be placed just slightly below eye level so that the eyes are not looking up. However, you don’t want the position so low that the head is tilted down, causing neck strain. Optimal position has good posture, a neutral head, and eyes looking slightly downward.
- Schedule breaks.
Second to a comprehensive eye examination, this is probably the most important tip. You may have heard of the 20/20/20 Rule. This rule advises that every 20 minutes, one should take a break from reading or focusing at near to looking at an object at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds. The purpose of this is to relax the accommodative or focusing system of the eye. When we are reading, our eye muscles have to work to maintain a near focus, so giving them periodic breaks by looking far away gives those muscles an opportunity to relax. Help your child choose a distance target to look at every 20 minutes, and set a timer if you need to. After school is done, stop screen time (especially near screens like tablets and handheld gaming devices).
- Consider dry eye.
This is a concern in anyone, even children, using a computer for extended periods of time. If the eyes hurt or appear red, dry eye must be ruled out. One thing we know about excessive computer use is that we blink much less while staring at a screen! On average, one’s blink rate decreases to about 1/3 of normal when focusing on a screen. Blinking is important for keeping the ocular surface moist by spreading the tear film. Additionally, the Meibomian glands (oil glands) in the lids pump oil out with each blink. If the eyes are not blinking normally, tears are not being spread over the cornea and there is less oil to prevent the tears that are there from evaporating from the surface. You can help compensate for this by trying to consciously blink more and by ending the 20/20/20 breaks with 10 forceful blinks. Make sure there are no fans or vents pointed toward the face as this can increase dry eye. Some people do require supplementation with artificial tears. In these cases, I typically recommend a preservative free artificial tear like Theratears or Refresh Plus. Avoid anything like Visine that says “gets the red out”. If redness or discomfort is not alleviated with these tips, time for an eye exam!
- Send them outside!
Since kids are spending so much time on screens during the day, the best thing for their eyes (not to mention their body and brain) is to play outside after school. Outdoor activities encourage relaxation of accommodation. Studies show that children who are more active outdoors have less development of myopia (nearsightedness).
Since screens are becoming a normal part of life, it is important for parents to understand the causes, as well as signs and symptoms of digital eye strain in children. If you are reading this and the question about blue light lenses is fore-front in your mind, please keep reading- my next article is devoted to blue light!