Beyond the damage from the disease itself, the COVID-19 pandemic has done a number on our kids.
We’ve seen worsening childhood obesity caused by poor nutrition and exercise habits. The additional social stressors have also weighed heavily on kids: They are suffering from increased mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
And then there’s screen time. It’s soaring.
Typically, we recommend that kids spend only one to two hours in front of a screen each day. This is impossible with online school, which requires kids to spend up to eight hours or more staring at a screen. That increased screen time has led to eye strain.
When kids stare at screens for too long, their eye muscles can become fatigued, leading to headaches and difficulty concentrating. Too much screen time can also lead to dry/irritated eyes, because kids blink less frequently. It can also lead to blurred vision or worsening nearsightedness.
Luckily, there are several ways parents can help reduce the harmful effects of too much screen time. One way is to limit screen time outside of school. Although they can’t control the amount of time spent online for schoolwork, parents can do their best to shut off screens at other times. Putting away the tablets, laptops and phones and focusing on exercise can help eyes recover (and improve overall physical fitness).
Proper sleep habits can also help prevent sore/tired eyes. Since most screens emit blue light that makes it more difficult to fall asleep, parents should shut off devices at least an hour before bed.
There are also ways to optimize screen time to reduce or prevent eye strain. Even when kids are stuck on the computer for hours at a time, they can take brief breaks. An easy way to do this is by following the 20-20-20 rule, as recommended by the American Optometric Association. It’s simple to remember: Every 20 minutes, look away from the screen and focus on an object 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. This helps reduce eye-muscle fatigue.
Parents should also encourage their kids to blink more than usual, especially during these brief breaks, to help prevent the eyes from getting too dry.
It’s also possible to optimize the position of the screen: Laptops should sit 2 feet away, with the screen at or slightly below eye level, and brightness should match the lighting of the room. Eyes will dry out more from staring at excessively bright screens and from looking up for too long.
Kids don’t always notice when they’re suffering from eye strain, so it’s up to parents to monitor for possible symptoms. Kids with eye strain might complain of worsening headaches, or they might start squinting or holding books or screens closer to their eyes. If any of these symptoms do occur and persist, parents should take their kids to an eye doctor for evaluation. Regular vision screenings by your physician are also important, to catch vision problems before they cause any of these issues.
Your kids’ eyes are still growing and developing throughout childhood, so it’s important not to overlook – so to speak – eye health.
Dr. Laura Shefner writes about pediatric care for the Cleveland Jewish News. She is a pediatrician at The MetroHealth System and practices in Beachwood and Parma.