For many K-12 students in California and across the nation, the start of a new school year looks very different–yet very familiar. This school year, classes are being conducted primarily online from home to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The shift from in-person to online learning requires students to spend more time looking at electronic devices such as tablets and computers, chucking any preexisting household screen-time limits imposed by their parents and guardians.
Before schools moved to distance learning, eye care professionals guided consumers about how best to ward the harmful effect too much screen time can have on children’s eyes.
Although the playing field has changed, the tactics remain the same. Licensed California optometrist and Associate Clinical Professor Lillian Wang of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Optometry, suggests computer vision syndrome, or digital eye strain, is one of the most significant potential hazards of increased screen time on a child’s eyes.
“When you’re looking at something up close in an extended period of time like kids now have to do with virtual school, their eye muscles are contracted for hours if they don’t take a break. That causes a lot of eye strain, discomfort, and eye fatigue,” said Wang.
She gave an analogy of holding a two-pound weight at your waist, which does not seem heavy at first. However, if you kept that two-pound weight in the same position for a long time, your arms would begin to get tired. The same thing occurs with eye muscles: When eyes focus on a computer screen for an extended period of time, the eyes will experience fatigue, and symptoms like an inability to focus and headaches can occur.
How do you combat this eye strain? Eye care professionals suggest implementing the 20/20/20 Rule.
“So, every 20 minutes, you want to look at something that’s at least 20 feet away,” said Wang. “And what that does is it relaxes your eye muscles, so they don’t have to contract, and you want to do it for 20 seconds. It can be as simple as looking out of a window and focus on something outside of the window, like a tree or a building.”
She noted this small act helps the eyes to relax, and it works for children and adults.
Also, when students are focused and paying attention to their teacher or concentrating while completing a lesson, they blink less. Reduced blinking can lead to computer dry-eye, another hazard of increased screen time.
“Every time you blink, your eyelids actually refresh the layer of tears that covers the cornea, the front surface of your eye,” said Wang. “When we don’t blink enough, the cornea has a tendency to dry out, and then you get irritated eyes or exhibit a burning sensation, they might turn red because your eyes are feeling uncomfortable.”
It may not seem like a big deal, but blinking is essential. Relief from computer dry-eye can be relieved by blinking more or using artificial tears, which are available for purchase over-the-counter.
The distance of the screen is another concern. Making sure your child’s device is not too close is another useful tactic to give their eyes a break to lessen the screen’s negative impact. According to Wang, a minimum of sixteen inches from their head would be an ideal distance for kids to view their tablets or laptops.
Also, staring into a digital screen for longer than usual, you may wonder if you should be concerned about the blue light emitting from the electronic devices into your child’s eyes.
According to Wang, “Blue light glasses or filters may work for some and not for others. All electronic devices, anything with a screen emits blue light, even your phone.”
Researchers assert that blue light can cause sleep issues and eye strain. But should your child wear blue light glasses? The answer is a matter of preference. There is a lot of literature out there that supports the benefits of blue light blocking accessories. However, there is not enough research data to support the purported benefits, and the eye health industry has not entirely gotten behind blue light blocking devices. The best course of action is to read about the pros and cons and make the best choice for the individual in consultation with an eye care professional licensed through the California Department of Consumer Affairs’ (DCA), California State Board of Optometry, Medical Board of California, or the Osteopathic Medical Board of California.
As a final point, it is important to note that children’s eyes differ from adults. Their eyes are susceptible to many vision and eye problems that are not detectable from a routine eye exam. Wang suggests if a child exhibits symptoms of eye strain, headaches, tired eyes, and they have tried the 20/20/20 Rule, but their symptoms persist, then they should get a comprehensive eye exam.
Checking the licensure status of your child’s eye care professional is simple. Their license can be verified through DCA’s license search tool at https://search.dca.ca.gov.