25 April, 12:00
Your kids, digital devices, and balance around COVID-19
Published by Ravi Dass
As a fellow parent of young kids, the main question parents ask me is whether computers and digital devices (phones and tablets) are bad for children's eyesight.
There is no simple answer for this - and I am certainly in no position to judge anyone's screen time right now in any case! - but I hope the following information may help set your minds at ease, while giving you some pointers on what to look out for if you think your child may have a developing vision problem.
What we know
School holidays finish later this week, and many parents are facing an unfamiliar role as home-schoolers, while schools are gearing towards online-based learning. For some of us, this raises questions about how to handle with a potential increase in screen time.
So what do we know about screens and children's eyesight?
Use of screens is associated with Digital Eye Strain (DES), a blanket term for a range of visual and/or ocular discomfort associated with digital devices. This can range from:
- short-term effects (such as dry eye), to
- sleeping problems, through to
- a greater likelihood of becoming short-sighted (myopic)):
Dry eye has been linked to digital device use in both children and adults. This is because people's blink rate tends to reduce by between two- to five-fold when using screens.
Short and/or poor quality sleep
Using devies at night is associated with shorter and poorer quality sleeps. This use pattern is particularly common amongst teenagers - one study noted that 75% of teenagers use digital devices between 5pm and 10pm, and 25% use them between 10pm and midnight.
The problem with screen use in the evening (which many of us are also guilty of!) is that it exposes us to higher levels of short wavelengths of light, which in turn interfere with our circadian rhythms, leading to sleep disruptions.
Ideally, it would be better for your child to avoid using screens in bed if possible. This might involve investing in an old-fashion alarm clock (a common excuse for keeping the phone nearby), or even - dare I say it - turning off the wifi at a certain time. One approach I have heard of is to establish a 'charging station' where phones are left plugged in overnight (you may have to plug your own phone in as well!).
Some other potential solutions are to use 'night mode' and/or to turn down the screen brightness. There is some data supporting blue light glasses, but this is inconclusive (I'm planning another blog on this topic).
Some studies suggest a link between screen time and increased risk of short-sightedness (myopia). For example, the Ireland Eye Study found that prevalence of myopia in 6-7 year olds is nearly four times higher if they had more 3 hours of screen time per day.
However, to unpack this a little, there are also studies suggesting a strong association between spending less time in natural UV light and increased myopia (short-sightedness) - suggesting it is not necessarily the screen time per se that is causing vision problems, rather that those spending more time in front of a screen may be spending less time outside in natural light. One study concluded that each additional hour in the sun per week reduces risk of myopia by about two percent (link).
So time outside is good, but bear in mind it is only one factor that can affect vision (genetics also plays a part, for example). It also might not be a factor we can control right now - especially if you live in an apartment, or don't have good options for spending time outdoors for other reasons.
If your child is reading on a tablet, maybe they could read near a large window that has the most natural light coming in. You can also try to follow the 20-20-20 recommendation (every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds to look at something 20 feet (6 metres) away). For younger children, this may be as simple as making them run to the door and back every so often. For older children, you could suggest a regular song (or snack) break.
Overall, I would like parents to realise that, while extremely high levels of screen time may not be ideal for the long term, there are simple steps we can take to mitigate screen time (eg, a sensible approach to night-time screen use, the 20-20-20 recommendation) - and, as with all things, balance is key.
Should we be concerned?
Right now? No. We are living in challenging times with a lot of uncertainty, while still juggling the needs of our kids. So as Nigel Latta has put it - "forget screen time limits ... device time is quiet time.Embrace it. No permanent damage will be done,".
If you can get your kids outside, great. Otherwise it's okay too that they be on devices. There are two things that it is helpful to try:
1. Try and get your kids out into the sunlight when you can - whether its playing outside, or some activity outside (or enar natural light). There isn't a fixed amount of time I could recommend, just what can be managed - it's also good for everyone's mental health.
2. Try to keep devices at bedtime to a minimum
If you do have concerns, the following recommendations serve as a guideline for when you may wish to get your child's eyes tested:
1. If one/both parents wear glasses, there is a much higher chance your child will need glasses - this includes young ones too. It is a good practice to get your child's eyes tested and follow-ups as recommended by their optometrist.
2. If your child complains of headaches, blurred vision and eye strain sypmtoms.
3. If your child has dry eye symptoms e.g. burning, itchy, red eyes - especially after using digital devices.