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How to help children avoid computer vision syndrome

child playing game on tablet computer

How frequently do young children use computers and other digital devices these days? The answer may astound you. And it could result in a problem called computer vision syndrome.

Computers and vision by the numbers

According to Ofcom, 9 out of 10 UK children aged 5 to 15 went online with an electronic device.

This same research from 2019 showed:

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Should you worry about how much time your child spends in front of the computer every day?

  • 98 percent of 5-7 year olds watch TV programmes or films on any device for an average of over 11 hours per week.

  • And younger kids aged 3-4 are watching for even longer with 12 hours and 42 minutes per week with 24 per cent even having their own tablet.

Because this rapid increase in the use of computers and other digital devices by children has occurred within just the past decade or two, there’s no conclusive data regarding the potential harmful effects of too much screen time on kids' eyes — both in the short-term and later in life. But some experts are concerned.

Screen time risks

A primary concern that many eye care professionals have is that significant hours of computer use by kids may put them at greater risk for developing myopia (near sightedness).

Research appears to confirm that opinion. The study by the College of Optometrists and Ulster University found that myopia is more than twice as prevalent among UK children now than in the 1960’s (16.4% vs 7.2%).

The timeframe of this significant increase in myopia parallels the ramp-up of hours of computer use worldwide, but also other trends such as spending less time playing outdoors, for instance. And the greatest risk for near sightedness and myopia progression takes place in childhood.

But another concern is that more opticians are seeing children in their practices who are experiencing symptoms of computer vision syndrome (CVS) — a condition characterized by a combination of eye strain, headaches and fatigue-related discomfort and posture problems.

High-energy blue light emitted by the screens of computers and other digital devices, plus staring at a screen for long periods appear to contribute to CVS symptoms. Also, research suggests blue light has the potential to cause oxidative stress on the retina of the eye over time. Some researchers believe this stress on the retina might increase one's risk for age-related macular degeneration later in life.

More research is needed to determine the long-term effects of blue light from computer use on the eye. But many opticians are urging caution, because when today's children become tomorrow's senior citizens, they will have been exposed to far more blue light from digital devices than previous generations have been.

What to do

Symptoms of computer vision syndrome — headaches, eye strain, posture problems, etc. — are good reasons to schedule an eye test for your child. Addressing these issues early will not only relieve unnecessary discomfort, it may also reduce the risk of vision problems or eye health concerns later on.

[If you need an eye care provider, click here to find an optician near you.]

In addition to scheduling an eye test here are a few helpful things you can encourage your child to do to decrease the risk of computer vision syndrome and keep their eyes comfortable, seeing well, and healthy:

  1. Take frequent "eye breaks."

    A very helpful technique when using a computer or other digital devices is called the "20-20-20 rule" — every 20 minutes, stop looking at your screen for at least 20 seconds to look at something at least 20 feet away. This relaxes your eye muscles to prevent fatigue that leads to eye strain and headaches.

  2. Stretch.

    The short breaks associated with the 20-20-20 rule are a great time for your child to get up from their desk (or put down their device) to stand up and stretch. Performing a yoga pose or two also is a good idea. (OK, they shouldn't do these things in the middle of a class at school, but you get the idea!) The purpose here is to relieve muscle tension that causes eye, head, neck and overall body discomfort. Stretching also helps increase blood flow to increase alertness.

  3. Go outdoors. Again, not during class time, but spending more time outdoors will get your child moving and relieve tension associated with computer vision syndrome. There also is research that shows spending more time outdoors may decrease the risk of becoming near sighted!

And if your child already wears glasses, ask your eye care professional about photochromic lenses and anti-reflective coating. These eyewear products can increase visual comfort and decrease your child's exposure to blue light both indoors and outside.

Read Next

Digital devices: Bad for kids' eyes? Learn the risks of spending too much time staring at screens.

What causes myopia? Learn about the causes and risks of near sightedness in kids.

Children's eye exams Facts about eye tests for kids and when to schedule them.

Student access to digital learning resources outside of the classroom. National Center for Education Statistics. April 2018.

The Common Sense census: media use by kids age zero to eight. Common Sense Media. October 2017.

Myopia in young adults is inversely related to an objective marker of ocular sun exposure: the Western Australian Raine Cohort Study. American Journal of Ophthalmology. November 2014.

Outdoor activity during class recess reduces myopia onset and progression in school children. Ophthalmology. May 2013.

Increased prevalence of myopia in the United States between 1971-1972 and 1999-2004. Archives of Ophthalmology. December 2009.

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