Extra screen time could be affecting the development of your kids’ eyes. But you have time to remedy the problem.
We can all agree that exercise and eating right will lead to a healthier, more resilient body. But have you ever thought about what you should be doing to keep your eyes healthy?
You only get one set of eyes, and this year has been tough on them. For most of last year, the pandemic forced kids to use screens to do school for hours upon hours each day. Parents were—and some still are—managing work in the same way: on their computers at home. Then, since entertainment outside of the house was unavailable due to quarantine, we all turned on screens to keep ourselves sane after work and school. What has all that screen time been doing to our eyes? According to opthamologists, that extra screen time has been having negative effects on the eye health of both kids and adults.
What Happens to Your Eyes When Your Stare at Screens All Day
Ophthalmologist Dr. Geoffrey Emerson, Medical Director at Allina Health’s Phillips Eye Institute, was recently interviewed about the eye-related issues emerging post-pandemic in an article by CBS Minnesota. He explained that the increase in screen time has caused a litany of changes to kids’ and parents’ eye health, including eye straining causing blurriness, headaches and irritation, as well as dry eye syndrome. Too much screen time could also be affecting the development of your kids’ eyes long term—it’s been linked to early-onset nearsightedness, which is called myopia.
“If we focus up close for prolonged periods of time, the focus of the eye is out of balance. The eye starts to think it’s natural to be nearsighted and that might eventually squeeze a change in the eye that makes an eye more nearsighted over time,” Dr. Emerson said.
Dr. Emerson went on to explain the difference in the way we interact with screens versus people, “If we were sitting across the table and talking to each other we normally blink about 15 times a minute. But if we are staring at a computer screen, we blink like 5, 6 or 7 times a minute,” he said. The lack of blinking combined with the constant blue light exposure is what causes most of the eye issues emerging post-2020. Here’s a breakdown of the most common ones Dr. Emerson referenced.
The Mayo Clinic defines myopia as a common vision condition in which you can see objects near to you clearly, but objects farther away are blurry. It occurs when the shape of your eye causes light rays to bend (refract) incorrectly, focusing images in front of your retina instead of on your retina.
While nearsightedness does tend to run in families, it also shows up in childhood. And some studies show that children who spent less time outside were at greater risk of developing myopia.
When kids can get outside to play to take a break from their devices, their eyes readjust and get relief from the blue light and strain caused by staring at the screen up close. Studies continue to support the links between how much time kids spend outdoors and near-sightedness.
Eye strain is also known as computer vision syndrome, which refers to a combination of eye and vision-related problems as a result of overusing blue light-emitting devices. A few signs your kids may be experiencing this kind of of eye strain are:
- Visibly straining to see
- Blurred vision
- Dry eyes
- Neck and shoulder pain
Left unaddressed, eye strain can cause nearsightedness. If your kids are experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s best to have them checked out by an optometrist or ophthalmologist.
There are also additional contributing factors you can encourage your kids to avoid that could be exacerbating their eye strain.
- Poor lighting
- Glare on a digital screen
- Being too close to screens
- Uncorrected vision problems
Dry eye syndrome
When your tears aren't able to produce adequate lubrication to your eyes, it’s likely that you have dry eye syndrome. The condition is uncomfortable, and it can lead to inflammation and potential damage to the surface of the eyes. According to the Mayo Clinic, here are a few of the symptoms to look out for:
- A stinging, burning or scratchy sensation in your eyes
- Stringy mucus in or around your eyes
- Sensitivity to light
- Eye redness
- A sensation of having something in your eyes
- Difficulty wearing contact lenses
- Difficulty with nighttime driving
- Watery eyes, which is the body's response to the irritation of dry eyes
- Blurred vision or eye fatigue
Fortunately, if your kids have developed this condition from too much exposure to screens, it’s likely treatable with simple lifestyle changes or eye drops. Have them take more screen breaks to go outside when they’re doing school from the computer or tablet, and explain the need for them to remember to blink frequently.
How to Be Kind to Your Eyes
1. Get outside
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends taking frequent breaks from staring at a screen and spending as much time outside as possible. Being outside is good readjustment for the eyes.
2. Take breaks
Doctors also recommend using the 20-20-20 rule. For every 20 minutes on screens take a break for 20 seconds and look at something that’s at least 20 feet in the distance.
3. Introduce eye-healthy foods
Research by the American Optometric Associations and others show when mild symptoms related to eye strain start to emerge, they can be combated with foods containing high levels of Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acids, Zinc, and Lutein and zeaxanthin. Here are a few foods to start looking for at the grocery store containing these eye-healthy vitamins:
- Vitamin C: Oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, papaya, green peppers, and tomatoes
- Vitamin E: Vegetable oils (including safflower and corn oil), almonds, pecans, wheat germ, and sunflower seeds
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Fish and other seafood (especially cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines), nuts and seeds (such as flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts) plant oils (such as flaxseed oil, soybean oil, and canola oil) fortified foods (such as certain brands of eggs, yogurt, juices, milk, soy beverages
- Vitamin D: Cold-water fish (i.e. red sockeye salmon, sardines or cod liver oil) along with crucial essential fatty acids.
- Zinc: Red meat, legumes like chickpeas, lentils and beans, shellfish (oysters, shrimp, muscles), seeds (hemp, flax, pumpkin or squash seeds)
- Lutein and zeaxanthin: Dark green leafy vegetables as well as colorful fruits and vegetables, such as broccoli, orange peppers, corn, peas, persimmons, and tangerines.
4. Try blue light-blockers
Blue light-blocking glasses are a well-reviewed option for both kids and adults. Wearing them during the day may help your kids avoid some of the negative light rays that affect their sleep habits and help prevent eye exhaustion while on screens. It doesn’t cut down on screen time, but can help mitigate one of the negative aspects.
5. Put time limits on screen time
Even if your kids need the computer or tablet for schoolwork, it’s ok to set limits to control screen time. Talk to your kids about their eye health, and why everyone in the family needs some offline time away from screens. Then, pre-set those times of the day so your kids can plan accordingly—get outside, have fun with crafts, or make a fort. Whatever it is, they can prepare and get excited for those times without screens.
6. Make bedtime screen-free
The same blue light is creating eye strain, dryness, and all the painful symptoms that come from those conditions is also messing with your kids’ sleep. Blue light emitted from TVs, computer screens, phones, and tablets suppresses melatonin and affects the quality of your kids’ sleep. It’s much harder for them to reach REM sleep, and therefore, they’re not waking up as rested as they should be. Setting Bedtimes for everyone (including yourself), will help the entire family get a real break from blue light in order to sleep better AND give their eyes time to recover.
Give Your Family’s Eyes a Break
Whether you’re still working from home, schooling from home, or socializing from home on video, or even binging TV at home, screens are still the common denominator. Your eyes are begging you to take some time off from screens. Take some time to sit down with your whole family, and make a group commitment to be kind to your eyes this year.
Think of some fun family activities to take part in together instead of hunkering down in front of screens. And lastly, keep the conversation going—the more everyone is talking about their eye health, the more top of mind it will be. If your kids can remember to listen to their bodies, they will be more likely to step away when their eyes feel dry or strained.