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Excessive Screen Time Can Affect Vision

Screens are everywhere: tablets instead of textbooks, kids on tablets in restaurants, kids at the grocery store with mom’s phone, and kids watching a screen in the backseat on the way to school.

Before I get carried away let me say that I think it’s ok for kids to use electronics occasionally. Given that our world revolves around technology you don’t want to raise a kid that has no idea how to use it.  However, I think it’s very important to have boundaries in place at home since it’s hard to avoid them at school and work.

Excessive screen time, especially up close work like work done on tablets and phones indoors can have a negative impact on eye health. One thing I tell people every day in my practice is that our eyes weren’t made to spend 8-10 hours a day staring at a screen. You might not think your child even remotely comes close to those numbers, but between classroom work, homework, and then social texting or scrolling, the minutes quickly add up. In fact, you can check your screentime usage (and those of your kids) very easily. It even breaks down what apps you're using the most.

cell phone useage
This is an example of an adult's screen time, but if you have kids who have cell phones, you might want to consider checking their daily usage and setting screen time limits with a passcode.

These are the top three eye and vision related side effects of using tablets and laptops for kids:

1. Increased risk of developing myopia (nearsightedness)

Myopia means that you need glasses or contact lenses to help you see far away. Most children start developing myopia in upper elementary and their eyes continue to get worse until their early 20’s.  One of the biggest risk factors of developing myopia is spending too much time doing up close work, especially on screens.

Myopia has been a developing problem over the last 30 years, but it has gotten much worse in just the last 3 years. If you take a moment to consider why this could be, the thing that stands out is our children are spending much more time on devices indoors due to the elimination of paper textbooks in schools.

2. Poor peripheral vision skills

Peripheral (side) vision is the ability to see objects and people around us when we are not looking directly at them. It is important to have good peripheral vision in sports so that you can see everything that is happening around you and anticipate how to react to a play. This also helps you avoid injury because you know where other players are on the field. (This is especially important in a sport like soccer, which happens to have one of the highest percentages of concussions in any sport. It’s dangerous to go up for a header, not be able to see another player, and crash into them.)

Peripheral vision is also important for everyday tasks like driving, and even something as simple as walking. We have all seen those videos of people that are so focused on their phone that they walk right into a fountain or nearly get hit by a car. If your child is clumsy and tends to bump into walls or crash into other things in your house, they could have poor peripheral vision. When we spend too much time staring at a screen our eyes become locked in centrally and we start to develop tunnel vision.

kids playing soccer

3. Eye fatigue and focusing problems

We have muscles in our eyes that have to work to help us focus to see letters on a screen clearly and we have muscles that have to move so that we can track the words accurately across the screen. The more time we spend doing this, the more tired our eye muscles get. Just like any other muscle in the body, our eye muscles have limits.

One common condition I see in kids is what is known as accommodative infacility, which simply means that the focusing muscles in their eyes are not very flexible. They get “stuck” in one position so they can’t easily transition from focusing on a screen to looking far away. This can make things blurry in the distance and make it seem like they need glasses to help them see -- when it’s actually just a focusing issue from too much time in front of a screen. Screens are much brighter and have poor contrast compared to paperback books and this also causes even more strain.

boy on a screen

Since our schools are pushing technology younger and younger, it's now almost impossible for kids to avoid screens during the day. This is why it’s very important for adults (parents, teachers and faculty) to understand children need to take breaks. I recommend taking a screen break every 20 minutes. Encourage your child to to look out a window or take several really good blinks. They should close their eyes too, allowing the eye muscles a moment to relax. If your child is on a device for more than half the school day, prescription glasses for reading might help take the strain off their eyes. They could also benefit from vision therapy, where we help them regain lost muscle flexibility.

back to school graphic

So what should parents do?

If you believe your child is on a device too much at school, set up a meeting with your child's teacher and support faculty. Ask how many minutes a child is required to use digital programs (such as iready) and if there's alternate ways to test reading and math skills that don't use a computer. If schools are reading novels and stories via PDF, push for your child to read hard copies of the book. Encourage middle & high school teachers to have kids look at their white boards instead of individual devices while they are teaching. If you know your child learns better from a real textbook, don't be afraid to ask for one. Schools won't know families are unhappy with the amount of in-school screen time until the parents speak up.

If you find your child (middle school / high school specifically) is on their school device for more than 5 hours a day, you may want to consider going tech free at home during after school hours or at least putting limits on your child's cell phone usage. It's been recommended to be screen free at least 2 hours before you go to bed, so don't be afraid to cut off the Wifi at a set time.

The most important thing to do is balance the amount of time spent indoors on screens with outdoor play. There has been a lot of new data showing that spending time outdoors is one of the best things you can do to prevent things like myopia.

>>> read related article "Eye Opening News : Playground Play Can Help Prevent Myopia in Children" <<<

Those that spend too much time on screens and never get outside seem to be the ones that develop the most problems. Even if your child is on screens for an excessive amount of time, spending time outside has proven to help heal their eyes.

Most kids are probably getting at least double the amount, but the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) recommends following these screen time guidelines (and I agree):
Under 2 years old:  Zero screen time unless Face-timing with family/friends
2-5 years old:  No more than an hour per day
5-17 years old: No more than 2 hours per day
These numbers should be shared with teachers and faculty, if they are exceeding them during school hours.

collierville vision centerIf you think your child suffers from any of the three side affects listed, please contact Collierville Vision Center and make an appointment for an evaluation.

If your child is already suffering from nearsightedness and you are curious at ways to slow down the progression, feel free to reach out and Dr. Walley will be happy to explain more.

About the Author:

Dr. Walley is a native of Madison, MS. He received his B.S. in Microbiology in 2004 from Mississippi State University. In 2008 he received his doctorate of Optometry from the Southern College of Optometry in Memphis. He lives in Collierville and is married with four kids and two dogs. He enjoys spending his free time with his family, playing golf, exercising, and spending time outdoors. His also enjoys Mississippi State sports and New Orleans Saints football. Dr. Walley also loves to cook and share recipes with his patients.

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