Today, screens are a big part of how teens and tweens learn and have fun. This generation is among the heaviest users of digital devices like computers, tablets and phones.
But there’s a growing problem – digital eye strain or computer vision syndrome. Excessive screen time on computers, tablets and smartphones can cause physical symptoms and emotional and behavioral issues.
Jordana M. Smith, MD, a pediatric ophthalmologist with Banner – University Medicine, helps us understand how common it is, what the symptoms are and tips to help reduce eye strain and protect your child’s vision.
What is digital eye strain?
Digital eye strain refers to a set of eye and vision-related symptoms caused by prolonged use of digital devices.
“The symptoms of eye strain may include headaches, especially between the eyes, blurred vision and dry or irritated eyes,” Dr. Smith said. “There may also be musculoskeletal symptoms such as neck, jaw or upper and lower back pain.”
In the past, eye strain was linked to activities such as reading or driving, but now, using screens a lot can cause it. Technology has become inseparable from education and recreational activities for adolescents.
“The COVID-19 pandemic made things even more screen-focused with online learning,” Dr. Smith said. “Many students continue to use technology in most of their schoolwork.”
Besides school stuff, most teens and tweens use screens to connect and socialize. They’re on social media, texting with friends and family or playing games. This can make eyes tired because they don’t give their eyes a break from looking at things other than a screen.
What are the signs my child is straining their eyes?
In addition to the symptoms above, Dr. Smith suggested taking note if your child suddenly complains about using screens or doing things they once enjoyed. They may also develop a dislike for using screens or technology for less enjoyable tasks like reading or homework.
Studies have shown an increase in nearsightedness (myopia) in younger and younger ages – starting earlier and becoming more myopic over their lifetime.
“The strength of glasses your child needs may change significantly in a short time,” Dr. Smith said. If your child wears glasses, it’s important to check their eyes regularly to ensure the prescription is still correct.”
Too much screen time has also been shown to affect sleep quality, performance at school and social development.
Tips to help with digital eye strain
1. Follow the 20/20/20 and elbow rules
This refers to taking a break when using screens every 20 minutes for at least 20 seconds by looking at a distance as far as 20 feet.
“This relaxes the focusing muscles of the eye, recenters the eyes and resets much of the demand on your vision,” Dr. Smith said.
Keep devices an arm’s length away to avoid being too close to the eyes. You can adjust the font size if it is hard to see or read.
2. Adjust lighting
When using a device, the room’s lighting level should be half as bright as it would be for other activities. Screens should be at a brightness level that matches the room’s lighting.
Position the device away from windows and lighting that shines directly on the screen to reduce glare. You can also set the device to nighttime mode, a blue filter setting, which can help with sleep.
3. Get outside and move
Encourage regular daily physical activity – at least 30 to 60 minutes. Spending time outdoors exposes them to natural light, which is helpful for eye health. “This may also help to prevent the start of myopia,” Dr. Smith noted.
Engaging in hand-eye coordination activities, such as playing sports, helps develop and strengthen visual cues.
4. Create a bedtime for devices
Establish a specific time to turn off screens and limit screen time each night. Too much screen time before bed can mess with the body’s natural sleep cycles, so make sure all devices are off at least one hour before bedtime. It may help to charge devices in another room to help prevent temptation.
[Also read “Make Screen Time Family Time”]
5. Use artificial tears
Using artificial tears helps keep the eyes moist, reduces dryness and can help with discomfort or irritation.
“These can be used regularly without regular eye strain. The use of devices is well-known to decrease the number of times we blink, which can lead to dry eyes,” said Dr. Smith.
6. Model good habits
Children learn from observation. Model healthy habits with your digital devices by taking regular breaks and participating in other activities.
7. Schedule regular eye exams
While your child’s health care provider may provide a vision screening during check-ups, they should see a vision specialist (an ophthalmologist or optometrist) for an eye exam at least once a year if they have glasses or eye complaints. However, if you notice changes in your child’s vision or behavior, schedule an eye exam sooner.
Wait! What about blue light glasses?
Despite the hype around blue light-blocking glasses and screen filters, Dr. Smith said there’s no proof they really work. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, there is no evidence that blue light glasses are helpful against the symptoms of eye strain.
“While some people may feel better using them, they haven’t been proven helpful or harmful,” said Dr. Smith. “It’s up to each person whether they want to invest in them.”
However, if your child’s screen time is at night, using blue filters and the nighttime mode feature on the device may help with your normal circadian rhythm or sleep cycle.
Screens are a big part of teens’ and tweens’ lives, but you can help look out for their long-term eye health. Following tips like the 20-20-20 rule, regular physical activity and regular eye exams are helpful steps you can take.
See an optometrist, ophthalmologist or an eye care specialist with Banner Health if your child has any vision problems.