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Digital devices and children: Understanding the impact for their eyes

boy using tablet

Children and technology are practically inseparable these days. Whether for educational purposes or just fun, children are spending a good portion of their day on "screen time" — staring at the LED screens of computers, tablets, smartphones and other digital devices.

According to Common Sense Media, children under age 8 now spend more than two hours a day with screen media. For 8- to 10-year-olds, screen time triples to six hours a day. And it's not unusual for kids in primary school and secondary school to spend up to nine hours per day looking at digital displays.

If you're wondering if all this screen time might cause problems for your child's eyes and vision, the short answer is: "Yes, it can."

Issues associated with too much screen time

Children who spend multiple hours staring at digital devices are at risk of developing these vision-related problems:

Computer vision syndrome

Computer vision syndrome (CVS) — also called digital eye strain — is a condition that's caused by visual stress from extended screen time.

Digital eye strain has a combination of symptoms, including: fluctuating vision, tired eyes, dry eyes, headache and fatigue. Other non-visual symptoms of CVS include neck, back and shoulder pain.

Poor posture

When using a computer or digital device for prolonged periods, it's common to start slouching inward, rounding the back and shoulders, and then tilt the head back and jut the chin forward. This unnatural (and unhealthy) forward head posture — called "turtling" — leads to many of the non-visual symptoms of computer vision syndrome.

Short-sighted

Vision researchers believe increased screen time among children is a risk factor for the development and progression of myopia (commonly called being short sighted ). The prevalence of myopia has grown significantly in the last few decades and this trend coincides with the increased use of computers and digital devices by children.

Blue light

High-energy visible light called blue light is emitted by the LED screens of computers, tablets, smartphones and other digital devices, this reduces screen contrast and impacts on the comfort of the user.

What to do

It's not realistic to think that children will stop using modern technology. But there are some easy things you can do to decrease your child's risk of eye and vision problems from prolonged use of computers and digital devices:

Encourage frequent visual breaks

One of the best things you can do to reduce your child's risk of digital eye strain is to get them to follow the "20-20-20" rule: Every 20 minutes, take your eyes off your screen and look at something about 20 metres away for at least 20 seconds.

This simple task relaxes the focusing (accommodation) of the eyes reducing the risk of many of the symptoms of digital eye strain.

The 20-20-20 rule also might decrease the risk of myopia progression. Some research suggests focusing fatigue may be associated with the onset and worsening of myopia. Taking frequent breaks from staring at digital screens helps reduce this fatigue.

Encourage frequent posture checks

The time taken to follow the 20-20-20 rule is also a good time to sit up straight and realign the head, neck and shoulders. Moving the head slowly to the right and left and also up and down can relieve strained muscles and reduce fatigue.

If it's possible, getting up to walk and stretch the entire body also is a good idea to reduce the risk of non-visual symptoms of computer vision syndrome.

SEE RELATED: Read more about computer ergonomics.

Filtering blue light

Currently, studies results are mixed about symptoms related to blue light emitted by computer screens and digital devices. It may take researchers decades to sort that out.

In the meantime, for your child's eye there are blue light filters to cut blue transmission from both sunlight and digital devices.

Outdoors, polarised sunglasses cut the sun's glare and blue light, by roughly 90 percent or more.

For indoor and outdoor wear, photochromic lenses such as Transitions lenses are an excellent choice, reducing glare outdoors and increasing screen contrast indoors.

For indoor wear lenses with an integrated blue light filter are a good choice.

Be aware that different spectacle lens companies may measure blue light filtration properties differently, and lenses with the most effective blue light filters have slight tint that shows the the lenses are doing their job.

Finally, certain anti-reflection coatings can help spectacle lenses filter blue light.

Establish media-free times

It's a great idea to establish media-free times each day to break your child's fixation on digital devices and reduce eye fatigue. Use this time to connect as a family.

Schedule regular eye tests

Finally, schedule a comprehensive eye exam for your children prior to the start of every school year.

In addition to making sure your child's eyes are healthy and seeing well, your optometrist can perform special tests and provide specific suggestions to reduce the risk and symptoms of digital eye strain.

Children and technology are the future. Taking these simple measures can go a long way toward keeping your tech-savvy child seeing clearly and comfortably for years to come.

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