Getting outdoors, enjoying the fresh air, and taking time to play; these things are crucial to maintaining your child’s overall health, including their eyes. When looking at close-up objects, such as a screen, tablet, or phone, eyes contract and converge. This causes the eye muscles to work harder, and then experience digital eye strain. But taking the time to play outdoors allows the eye muscles to focus on things farther away, relax, and rest. In fact, recent research shows for every one additional hour children spend outside, their odds of developing myopia (nearsightedness) goes down by about 14 percent.
Dr. Kim Bugera, Children’s Vision Committee Chair at the Alberta Association of Optometrists, says digital eye strain in children is more common than you think. “Children spend their whole life looking at phones, which can mask other issues,” says Dr. Bugera. She points out that we normally blink 12 times per minute, but when looking at screens, blinking slows to five times per minute, leaving the eyes improperly lubricated. “Blinking is important because it creates a protective lubricant over the eye that helps to provide relief.” Practice mindful blinks. When waiting for something to download, for example, count 1, 2, 3, 4 and then blink. 1, 2, 3, 4 and then blink. Squeeze the eyelids to lubricate the eye.
Dr. Bugera suggests you consider keeping screens out of your children’s bedrooms at night. “Staring at screens at bedtime means your eyes are drying out just as you’re falling asleep. This is a much better time for children to read a book and give their eyes a chance to rest and lubricate before nodding off for the night.” Digital devices also emit high energy visible light known as blue light, and there is evidence to support that this light can adversely impact sleep patterns.
Children don’t often complain about their vision because they believe what they are seeing and experiencing is normal. Dr. Bugera cautions parents against believing they would know if their child had a vision or eye health issue. “Devices can also mask other issues, such as an incorrect prescription. When children are looking at screens close up, they can hide the fact they can’t see distances or have poor depth perception. This is something very difficult for children to cope with, and equally difficult for parents to detect because children can be masters at compensating,” says Dr. Bugera. Unfortunately, it’s usually in the classroom where these issues become evident with children showing signs of irritability, displaying poor behavior, and there is often reduced attention span. “It’s why we recommend annual eye exams take place early in the school year. If a child’s eyes are straining to read and they are struggling to see the board, you can imagine the combination of issues this creates.”
A few things you should be on the lookout for to determine if your child is experiencing digital eye strain:
While there could be a number of reasons your children are experiencing these symptoms, a comprehensive eye exam will rule out vision and eye health as a cause. Children’s annual eye exams are covered by Alberta Health, so all you need to do is book an appointment for your child. If your child is in Kindergarten and they require glasses, they can also get a free pair of glasses as part of the Eye See... Eye Learn® program.
So, what can you do to ensure your children don’t suffer from digital eye strain? Dr. Bugera recommends some simple steps such as changing to anti-fatigue eyeglass lenses, eliminating screen glare, not holding screens too close to the face/eyes, and taking regular breaks from a screen. “These breaks are important. A simple way to remember to help the eyes is to look at something 20 feet away every 20 minutes for 20 seconds; 20-20-20 [rule]. And, of course, head outside to play,” she says.
For more information on children’s eye health, visit optometrists.ab.ca.
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