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Prolonged electronics exposure may cause a strain on children’s eyes

Written By: Laura Frnka-Davis | Updated: September 23, 2020
Child attending online class

Over exposure to computers and tablets as part of virtual learning can cause eye strain in children.

While some schools in the Houston area have gone back to on-campus classes, some students are still learning virtually, which means an increased amount of time in front of a computer or tablet.

These prolonged periods of time in front of a digital screen can have consequences for young children when it comes to their eyesight development.

Shazia F. Ali, MD
Ali Shazia, MD

“While using digital devices for long periods can sometimes cause discomfort, there typically is a low risk for permanent damage to the eyes in adults,” said Shazia F. Ali, MD, an ophthalmologist with The Robert Cizik Eye Clinic. “In children, however, we are concerned about the risk of myopia (nearsightedness) that can develop over many years of continued exposure to indoor lighting and electronics.”

More than nearsightedness

In addition to nearsightedness, the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) states that children (and adults) can develop dry eyes, blurry vision, and tearing of the eyes if they spend too much time interacting with electronics. These symptoms are often due to a decreased blink rate that subconsciously occurs when we spend too much time in front of our digital devices.

Ali, who is an assistant professor in the Ruiz Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Science at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, says textbooks for learning are a better option for children’s eyes.

“If your school or educator can provide an actual textbook to follow along during class or for homework assignments, I would recommend opting for nondigital options for your children whenever possible,” said Ali. She counsels her patients on limiting electronics use to ideally less than two hours per day, based on American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines.

Prolonged time in front of a screen may also lead to headaches as well. Extended time in front of a screen can cause a headache that may prevent children from concentrating and doing their best work.

The 20-20-20 rule

The AAO recommends that children follow what is known as the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, spend about 20 seconds looking 20 feet away to reduce eye strain, which can lead to headaches.

“Uncorrected refractive error (i.e., need for glasses) can exacerbate headaches during prolonged screen time, so we do recommend baseline eye examinations for all school-aged children,” said Ali. “Reducing glare and brightness of devices can help reduce headaches, as well as staying more than 25 centimeters (about 10 inches) from electronic devices.”

Aside from eye strain and headaches, Ali is concerned about other issues that could arise from the virtual learning environment.

“As medical professionals, we are concerned about the rise of systemic illnesses like obesity, hypertension, and diabetes in children, which can be indirectly related to lack of physical activity,” she said. “Studies indicate that children who have two hours of screen time per day are also eight times as likely to develop attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).”

Managing and minimizing electronic use for children is challenging, especially during the pandemic. Ali says the best first step for parents is to be good models for their children and to exhibit easily replicable behaviors.

Creating a family media plan

The American Academy of Pediatrics has a helpful tool called a Family Media Plan. You can set a list of goals that work for you and your family during this challenging time and revisit your goals as often as necessary.

“With many schools still doing virtual learning, most of our allotted screen time will be taken up by school time,” said Ali. “As such, I would recommend that any electronics outside of schoolwork be minimized. Encourage children to spend time outdoors as natural ultraviolet rays from sunlight has been shown to aid in normal eye development in children.”

For more helpful resources on issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit our information center.

As the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, UT Physicians has locations across the Greater Houston area to serve the community. To schedule an appointment, call 888-4UT-DOCS.