Kids are getting a LOT of screen time right now, and that's not something you should feel guilty about while you're navigating school and daycare closures. But screens can have some negative effects on kids' eyes—and there are things you can do to reduce the harm.
According to a 2017 position statement from the Canadian Association of Optometrists and the Canadian Ophthalmological Society, while as many as 50 to 90 percent of adult screen users will experience eye symptoms from staring at their computers and smartphones, kids are likely even more at risk because their eyes are still developing.
Some of the problems that screens are known to cause in adults include blurriness, visual fatigue and dry eyes (because you don’t blink as often when you’re staring at a screen). As for kids, a 2014 US survey found 80 percent of 10- to 17-year-olds noted burning, itchy or tired eyes after using mobile screens, and most research shows visual symptoms increase after two to four hours of daily use. Here are some steps you can take to protect their eyes from screens.
Shamrozé Khan, an optometrist and assistant clinical professor at University of Waterloo’s School of Optometry, says it’s important to check in with a child about how their eyes are feeling, but keep in mind that they might not recognize a problem or understand how to describe it. “They may be experiencing dry eyes but may not know how to verbalize that, so they can’t tell a parent that they’re having issues,” she explains. Or sometimes, “they see the world and assume that everybody sees it the same way.”
“It's not unusual for a child to be on their belly looking at a screen from a really close distance,” says Khan, explaining that the child would be likely to hold a screen much closer that way. “Your eyes typically have to work that much harder when you hold things closer.” You can encourage kids to watch videos on bigger screens by casting from their device to a TV, for example.
The statement also recommends paying attention to how kids’ screens are set up ergonomically because, in addition to straining their eyes, they could be straining their necks too. For instance, chairs should let kids' feet lay flat on the floor and computer screens should be at eye level, at arm’s length.
This is a tough one right now, but if you can, limit the time kids spend on screens. The Canadian Association of Optometrists and the Canadian Ophthalmological Society’s position is that kids up to age two shouldn’t be using screens at all (except maybe if they’re video-chatting with the help of a parent) and that kids ages two to five should be getting no more than an hour of screen time a day. This position matches the guidelines released by the Canadian Paediatric Society. Once kids get a little older (five to 18 years), they suggest kids get no more than two hours.
In addition to limiting screen time, the statement encourages kids to step away from the screen at least every half hour to give their eyes a break. “That involves something like going outdoors or doing something where they’re not focused on an electronic device,” says Christine Law, an ophthalmologist and assistant professor of ophthalmology at Queen’s University.
In fact, going outdoors can also helps kids' eyesight. Though people used to think screen time was leading to an increase in myopia (nearsightedness) among kids, there's a stronger link to not spending enough time outside that could be to blame. Experts suspect there is something about natural light that is beneficial to eyesight.