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Living Well

Screen Time Affects Young Eyes

Last updated: Jul 25, 2016

Nearly half of children in the United States spend three or more hours on digital devices each day, according to a recent study from the American Optometric Association. While tablets and computers are a necessity for school in the modern age, experts say that too much screen time can be detrimental to young eyes.

Just ask Hamed B. Lari, MD, an ophthalmologist at Summit Medical Group. Over the past decade, he has seen a dramatic increase in children suffering from computer vision syndrome or digital eye strain. Symptoms of the disorder include:  

  • Dryness, burning, pain, discharge, or tearing in the eyes
  • Blurred vision
  • Headaches
  • Neck and back pain

The condition occurs when the eye muscles become fatigued after spending too much time focusing on objects up close, such as laptops, iPADs, and smartphones.

“The technological age offers tremendous advantages for learning and connecting, but we also have to be careful how we use these smart phones and tablets in childhood to preserve eye,” says Dr. Lari.

What Causes Digital Eye Syndrome?

When you look at an object up close a change occurs in the eye that allows you to focus—the muscles in the lens contract and take on a more rounded shape. If you look at something far away, the lens becomes elongated or stretched.

These are normal responses. The problem, Dr. Lari says, is when the lens stays in any one position for too long.  

“When the muscles are constantly contracting without taking a break it causes strain and they become fatigued,” he explains. “Young eyes were not meant to focus that intensely on a screen for such a long period of time.”

How to Prevent Eye Strain

Some 77 percent of parents report being somewhat or very concerned about the effect of devices on their child’s eyes, according to a study by The Vision Counsel. Dr. Lari urges parents to make sure kids use technology responsibility.

  • Tip One: Follow the 20/20/20 rule. 

“After spending 20 minutes using a smart phone tell your child to take 20 seconds and focus on an object that is 20 feet away,” advises Dr. Lari. “Looking 20 feet away allows those muscles to relax.”  

  • Tip Two: Moisturize the eyes.

“When kids spend a lot of time watching TV or using a computer their blink rate drops dramatically. This causes the eyes to dry out because the tear film evaporates at a faster pace,” explains Monica Khalil, MD, an ophthalmologist at Summit Medical Group.

She suggests children with dry eyes use preservative-free tears as needed and take frequent breaks.

  • Tip Three: Play outside.

Encourage your child to turn off the TV and video games and enjoy the fresh air. Studies show that children who spend more time outdoors and in recreational sports are less likely to develop nearsightedness, a condition that causes objects up close to become blurry over time.

  • Tip Four: Be a Role Model.

Remember to lead by example. Enjoy a family walk outside and put away your cell phone during dinner, homework, and bedtime.

  • Tip Five: Go for a check-up.

Children should have an eye screening at both their annual pediatric well visit and at school. If there is any evidence of decreased vision they should see an ophthalmologist. 

The Long-Term Effect of Screen Time

The link between digital devices and nearsightedness is still controversial. From 1971 to 2004, the condition increased by nearly two-thirds in people 12 to 54 years old, according to a National Eye Institute study.

“We know that kids are using these devices more often so we need to keep an eye on whether this is causing more kids to have nearsightedness and require glasses at a younger age,” explains Dr. Lari.   

References

1. Hamed B. Lari, MD, an ophthalmologist

2. The Vision Council - http://www.thevisioncouncil.org/

3. National Eye Institute https://nei.nih.gov/news/briefs/myopia

4. American Academy of Ophthalmology,

http://www.aaojournal.org/article/S0161-64201400364-9/fulltext

5. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci —  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17652719

6. Arch Ophthalmol — http://archopht.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=424548

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