Effects Of Screen Time: Safeguarding Our Children’s Eyes (and Our Own!)

I recently went for an eye exam in my new hometown of Boulder CO, and had the good fortune to meet with a very gifted, insightful optometrist. As I shared a bit about the work I do with teaching skills children struggling with homework,  and supporting parents raising a child with ADHD, she commented that she had been seeing an increasing number of children in her practice with vision issues. We discussed our mutual concern about the impact of screen time on growing eyes becoming yet another unintended concern in this new digital age to go along with screen addiction and eye fatigue. I asked Dr. Erley to share some insights and tools with all of you through my blog.

Cindy: What change have you seen in your practice with regards to treating children’s eyes?

Dr. Erley: I have been a practicing Optometrist for 25 years. During the last several years, I am putting more kids into progressives eyeglasses than ever before. I have found that it is our various screens that are causing havoc on young eyes.

Cindy: You mentioned that you have looked at the research regarding children’s screen usage. What have you found?

Dr. Erley: Screen time has increased for all age groups but research has shown that children under the age of 8 spend more than 3 hours a day on a digital device and as they get older screen time doubles or triples. By the time a child is between 8 and 11 years old, screen time increases to 6 hours daily and 11 to 14 year old’s spend upwards of 9 hours on a screen. Between school work, video games, social media, movies and digital books screen time continues to creep into our lives which adds up to hours of sitting and staring at devices.

Cindy: That is a lot of time. And as more schools integrate digital devices into the classroom, the screen time for children becomes even more intensified.

Dr. Erley: Not only is the amount of time spent on devices important but also the number of devices used does matter. The glare angle of the screen, how close the device is to the eyes, numbers of hours on each device, type of task and size of detail on the specific device can cause digital eye strain.

Cindy: I normally deal with the mental effects of screen time, but find the correlation between the two fascinating. Can you share what the physical impact of children’s screen time is doing to young eyes?

Dr. Erley: Some of the symptoms you may hear from children and teens after using a digital device for 2-3 hours are blurred vision, headaches, itchy, scratchy and tired eyes. Specifically, it is the intraocular lens inside the eye that becomes overworked until it spasms which commonly causes blurred vision, headaches, and eye strain. On average we blink approximately 15 times a minute but on a device that blink rate decreases to 4 times a minute. Blinking allows our cornea to be remoistened frequently to maintain clear vision and to protect the front surface of our eyes. If tears decrease enough, the eyelid will start to scratch the cornea which can cause the eye to burn, itch and eventually abrade the corneal surface.

Cindy: What can you recommend that we should do to help protect their eyes?

Dr. Erley: The recommended screen use for children under two years old should be extremely limited, between 2-5 years old less than one hour daily, and 5-18-year -old’s should not spend more than two hours at a time on a screen. Taking a break every 30 minutes is advised by getting up and walking around or going outside for at least 15 minutes. Being away from the screen allows us to blink more frequently reducing dry eye symptoms, and helps our focusing system to relax. Of course, spending time outside in nature is always a healthy step.

Cindy: As I noticed during my exam with you, I had more trouble focusing after sitting in the chair a while. You gave me eye drops and encouraged me to look away from the screen for a few moments. When I returned to the chart my vision was clearer. Do you recommend eye drops for children and if so, are there ones that are safe at any age?

Dr. Erley: My favorite over the counter preservative free eye drop is Retaine MGD. I recommend using this eye drop every 2 hours when on the computer screen and an additional eye drop right before bed and first thing in the morning keeps the eyes lubricated.

Cindy: Anything else you can share about general eye care for children?

Dr. Erley: One hundred years ago, the average human slept 9 hours daily, but now we receive about 7 hours of sleep total. Children using computer screens before bed increase the level of bright light they see. The blue light emitted disrupts circadian rhythms by suppressing melatonin which helps us maintain our wake-sleep cycles which means we sleep less. Also, kids watching action packed and scary movies before bed will increase the level of adrenaline released in their brain which makes it harder to fall asleep. Try to keep screens out of kids’ rooms overnight to reduce temptation and turn off the screen at least 30 minutes before going to sleep. This will help calm the mind and help us fall asleep easier.

Cindy: That is sound advice. Very similar to one of our main tools in the PTS Coaching toolbox; we need to help our children understand the things that impact their lives so that when we place restrictions on them, they buy into our expectations.

Dr. Erley: The digital era is here to stay, but in my opinion, it is the management of our devices that will keep our entire body and brain healthier.

Cindy: Thank you very much for your time.

Dr. Liz Erely is the owner of Wink Optical in Boulder, Colorado.

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