Children spend more time than ever staring at digital screens — on computers, tablets, TVs, smartphones and other devices.
Amid the pandemic, children are spending even more time on their laptops and computers if they are doing virtual learning.
All that screen time can take a toll on children’s well-being, including how their eyes may feel.
Research shows that children begin zooming in on digital media devices, such as their parents’ tablets or smartphones, as young as 6 months old.
By their teens, studies have found, kids spend nearly 7 hours a day using screen-based media, watching TV, playing video games and using social media.
Especially if they’re having fun, children might keep playing and watching to the point of eye-rubbing exhaustion.
To help ease children’s eye strain, parents can do the following things:
Monitor screen time
The American Academy of Pediatrics family media use plan and related reports target problems ranging from obesity to poor sleep linked to too much screen time.
Although children’s screen time has understandably increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, the AAP encourages parents to do their best to help keep some balance between the digital and real world.
Two especially important aspects of this are making sure screen time doesn’t cut into exercise and sleep.
Children frequently get so absorbed in what they’re doing that they don’t notice symptoms of eye strain. Remind them to take breaks.
The American Optometric Association recommends the 20/20/20 rule: look away from the screen every 20 minutes, focus on an object at least 20 feet away, for at least 20 seconds.
In addition, children should walk away from the screen for at least 10 minutes every hour. A simple timer can help them remember, or software programs can turn off the screen at intervals.
Position screens correctly
Make sure the screen on your child’s desktop or laptop computer is slightly below eye level. Looking up at a screen opens eyes wider and dries them out quicker.
Adjusting the font size, especially on smaller screens, so it’s twice as big as your child can comfortably read may also help to reduce eye fatigue.
Improve the lighting
To cut down on glare and eye fatigue, consider the lighting in the room. Ideally, it should be roughly half what it would be for other activities such as writing on paper or working on crafts.
Try to position computers so that light from windows, lamps and overhead fixtures isn’t shining directly on screens.
Decrease the brightness of the screen to a more comfortable level for viewing.
Some optometrists recommend special computer glasses with orange lenses that may help reduce glare. Children who wear prescription eyeglasses may have an anti-reflective coating added, as well.
Computer monitor hoods or shades may also be a good option.
Remind them to blink
Research published in The New England Journal of Medicine says staring at a computer can cut blinking rates by half and cause dry eyes.
Encourage your child to try to blink often, especially when they take breaks. Your pediatrician or eye doctor may recommend moisturizing eye drops or a room humidifier if your child continues to be bothered by dry eyes.
Focusing on a screen for long, unbroken stretches can cause irritating eye problems, such as:
Eye fatigue: Eye muscles can get tired, resulting in concentration difficulties and headaches around the temple and eyes. Children may also use screen devices where lighting isn’t ideal, causing fatigue from squinting.
Blurry vision: Gazing at the same distance for a long time can cause the eye’s focusing system to spasm or temporarily “lock up.” This condition, called an accommodation spasm, causes vision to blur upon looking away.
Dry eyes: People blink less when concentrating on a screen, which can leave eyes dry and irritated. Computer use can be especially tough on children’s eyes; the higher visual field opens eyes wider and speeds up tear evaporation.
Get regular vision screenings
If your child is having blurry vision or similar eye problems, they may not speak up. That’s why regular vision screenings are important.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology and the AAP recommend children have their eyes checked by a pediatrician beginning at birth. If a problem is found during one of these routine eye exams, your pediatrician may refer you to a pediatric ophthalmologist.
If you have any questions about keeping your child’s eyes and vision healthy during the pandemic, talk with your pediatrician.
Dr. Geoff Bradford teaches ophthalmology and pediatrics at West Virginia University, leads the residency program there and serves as the Department of Ophthalmology’s vice chair for education.
Here are tips from experts to ensure kids get the most out of school even though they’re at home:
Focus on schoolwork
Put nonlearning devices away
Both adults and children may feel the urge to pick up a device just because it’s around. “Our devices are addictive and designed to be that way,” said Dr. Megan DeFrates, a clinical associate of pediatrics at the University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital. “They’re designed in a way that we get a little dopamine boost, a little hit when we get a like or a notification.”
DeFrates said families should have phones “out of sight and out of mind.” Allison Johnsen, a manager of program development at Northwestern Medicine’s Central DuPage Hospital, agrees. She said parents can place phones in, say, a basket in the kitchen, outside of the room kids are learning in.
She also notes that distractions can come from having multiple tabs open on a computer.
“Yeah it’s a big temptation, and the brain gets used to that stimulation. So if we’re providing it, we want it even more,” Johnsen said. “So it’s like weaning yourself off the multiscreen, multitasking, looking at your phone all the time behavior.”
Doodle or listen to music
Johnsen said staring at a screen for long periods of time can be hard. It’s natural for kids’ minds to wander, even during in-person schooling. “We are normally stimulated in person, by all kinds of nonverbal cueing.
“Like looking around the room and noticing what people are doing. That might be distracting, but it does provide input. And so our brains love it,” Johnsen said.
Doodling, notetaking or having one headphone in for music can help students feel engaged but not passive. Johnsen said the extra stimulation may even help kids focus more.
Check in on your kid and make sure they take breaks
Johnsen recommends random, periodic check-ins to make sure kids are paying attention.
If possible, parents can also have kids in the same room where they work, making sure everyone stays on task.
“Checking in on them is a key on that, and then if they’re unfocused, redirecting or asking them to mute and ask what they need,” Johnsen said.
DeFrates said stepping away from all screens is also helpful. In her home, she has a corner of the room dedicated to Legos for when her kids are free. “You kind of have to have things prepared ahead of time so that kids are able to have these nonscreen activities,” DeFrates said.
Because kids are sitting in chairs for so long, Johnsen also recommends getting physical activity in.
“If you sit there too long, without some physical activity, you’re going to start zoning out. Usually, kids are walking between classrooms and socializing between classes,” Johnsen said.
A run around the house may keep kids awake and engaged.
Look at how they spend downtime
Outside of school, kids can still spend lots of time on their devices. For parents concerned about how often their kids are using electronic devices, DeFrates said online school probably won’t lead to technology addiction, as with video games or social media.
“It’s a different kind of screen usage. It’s interactive. It’s unfortunately, a necessary part of being in school right now, but this too shall pass,” DeFrates said.
Still, Johnsen said to make sure kids know when to turn off their devices for the day.
“If kids are really having a hard time putting the screens away, video gaming, then parents need to intervene hard,” Johnsen said. “If it goes into bedtime and they just can’t put it down, then that might be a time to reach out for help.”