These days, there are more children and teenagers, including those with special needs, using digital devices to learn, play and be entertained than any generation before. From smartphones to e-readers, and computers to digital tablets, young people have greater access to a wide variety of digital devices. A recent Nielsen study shows the iPad is the number one requested item during the holiday season from children ages 6 through 12, followed by other portable electronic devices such as smart phones and gaming players. With this growth in usage, it’s important to be mindful of the effects of using digital devices, along with ways to keep your child or teenager’s eyes safe while using them.
The closer an object is to the eyes, the harder they have to work to focus, meaning our eyes need an occasional break to “refresh.” Generally, the eyes function best when looking at something in the distance, such as an object on the horizon. When the eyes are looking at an object up-close, they have to change focus and position, which takes some effort. This effort adds up over time, leading to blurry vision, eye strain or headaches. Additionally, people tend to blink less when looking at screens, which can lead to dry eyes, burning, discomfort and blurriness.
The overuse of digital devices can cause digital eye strain, or computer vision syndrome (CVS), which is a term for any number of eye or vision-related problems that can result from overusing a computer or digital device. Symptoms of CVS and digital eye strain include headaches, dry or irritated eyes, difficulty focusing, blurry vision, and even neck and back pain. In fact, these conditions are now the number-one computer-related complaint in the United States – ahead of carpal-tunnel syndrome.
In order to ensure your children are using their digital devices properly and in a healthy way, it’s important to recognize the symptoms of CVS. It may be helpful to know that the effects of CVS are short-term. However, here are a few tips to keep in mind to help your children reduce their risk of CVS and develop safe habits while using digital devices.
Remember 20-20-20. As mentioned previously, the eyes need to “refresh” after focusing on objects up-close. Thus, the most important way to combat CVS is to follow the 20/20/20 rule. Every 20 minutes, make sure your child takes a 20-second break to stare at something about 20 feet away. Also, limit your children’s use of digital devices to around two hours per day. Children age two and under should avoid digital devices all together.
Schedule regular eye exams. Children’s vision changes often and it’s important they have the best vision possible when using digital devices to help avoid CVS. Parents should make sure to schedule a comprehensive eye examination for their children, as in-school screenings are unable to detect many underlying vision problems. Children should have their first eye exam at six months of age, then at three-years-old, before starting school and every year after that.
Play outside. As fun as playing with digital devices can be, make sure your children enjoy some quality time playing outside as well. Research shows that two hours of outdoor play each day can help prevent nearsightedness. Plus it’s healthy for the mind and body.
Maintain a proper working distance. Remember, the eyes have to work a lot harder when looking at an object up-close. The closer the object, the more work they have to do to focus. Watch the distance between your child’s eyes and the screen – it should be approximately the distance between his or her elbow and knuckle. Additionally, leaning too close to the screen or holding the digital device close to their face may indicate a child has an underlying vision problem and should be discussed with an eye doctor.
Create a kid-size work space. Children may have to crane their necks, look up at the screen or sit uncomfortably while working at adult-size desks. If possible, set up a small desk with an adjustable chair that provides good back support.