What screens are doing to your kids’ eyes

Optometrists and opthalmologists are warning parents that too much screen time could do damage to kids’ eyesight.

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By now, you’ve probably heard about the trouble screens cause for kids’ sleep, language development and physical activity, but did you ever consider their eyes? Though little research has been done on the impact of screens on kids’ eyesight, we know enough about the damage long-term screen use causes to adults’ eyes to recognize that it’s probably not benign for kids. That’s why the Canadian Association of Optometrists and the Canadian Ophthalmological Society put out a statement on screen use in kids.

Little girl looking at an iPhoneAll that screen time does real-life harm: Here's how much kids should actually be getting The statement notes that, 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. And the way kids use screens is bound to be different from adults. For instance, “it wouldn’t be unusual for a child to be on their belly looking at a screen from a really close distance, whereas an adult might spend an equal amount of time on a screen but at a desk,” says Shamrozé Khan, an optometrist and assistant clinical professor at University of Waterloo’s School of Optometry, 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.”

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.

Khan 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.”

So what can you do to keep their eyes safe? For starters, 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. No screens should be used in the hour before bed.

But the experts acknowledge that sticking to these guidelines could be more challenging than it sounds. “We don’t even realize when we’re using screens sometimes in this day and age,” says Christine Law, an ophthalmologist and assistant professor of ophthalmology at Queen’s University. “So just try to be a little more cognizant that, when you have a non-verbal child with you all the time, if you’re looking at your phone and they’re sitting in your lap, your child may be looking at the phone as well.”

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 Law.

In fact, the statement recommends prioritizing outdoor activity over screen time. That’s because going outdoors doesn’t just benefit kids’ fitness; it also helps their 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.

Finally, they recommend paying attention to how kids’ screen 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 eye level, at arm’s length. Of course, mobile devices are a bit trickier to control.

One of the best ways to keep your kids’ eyes safe? Get them tested, and regularly. Even if they don’t complain of problems, Khan says all kids should see an optometrist regularly, starting at age three.

Read more:
Study: Our kids are addicted to screens—and it’s our fault
Touchscreens are bad for toddlers’ and babies’ sleep

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