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COVID-19 has certainly changed the way we live day-to-day. One prominent example is online schooling. Many families who never really considered online schooling for their kids now find themselves sending children off to digital classrooms.

Among the many potential complications of online learning are the potential risks that full days of screen use could pose to your child’s vision.

I’m not trying to say digital learning is a bad option. I think that, as long as parents understand the potential eye health risks and know how to mitigate them, online education is a good way to limit the spread of COVID-19.

So with that said, let’s talk about how digital school could impact your child’s vision and what you can do to protect them.

What Are the Risks?

The risks associated with digital learning aren’t necessarily specific to schooling- screen time, in general, isn’t great for a child’s eye health. That’s why optometrists typically recommend limiting your child’s access to screens, especially when they’re younger. 

The reason online learning is potentially more harmful than just watching a movie or an hour of Minecraft is the level of exposure. Children attending digital classes are suddenly sitting in front of a computer screen for roughly 6 hours a day, 5 days a week.

The more time your child spends in front of a screen, the more likely they are to encounter eye issues.

Digital Eye Strain

Digital eye strain can happen to anyone who spends a lot of time in front of a screen. 

Our eyes are not designed to focus on close-up objects for hours at a time. Like any other part of your body, the eyes start to get tired and uncomfortable after holding what’s essentially the same position for long periods. 

The symptoms of digital eye strain can include:

  • Fatigue or trouble keeping eyes open
  • Dry eyes
  • Headaches
  • Neck & shoulder pain
  • Back pain
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Burning or itching eyes
  • Blurry vision
  • Sensitivity to light

Myopia

Myopia, or nearsightedness, has become increasingly common over recent years. Children are developing the condition at younger and younger ages. This trend is particularly disturbing because childhood myopia gets worse as kids get older. Without intervention, it can develop into high myopia, which brings an increased risk of retinal detachment, macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataracts, and other dangerous conditions. 

The direct cause of myopia is still uncertain. There is some evidence to indicate that myopia is at least partly genetic. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that the recent spike in myopia is related to the advent of digital devices, although probably not how you think.

Recent studies suggest screen time is not directly responsible for myopia; it’s actually the lack of time spent outside.

Your child’s eyes are designed to focus on a range of distances in a variety of lighting conditions. As video games, mobile devices, and general internet use have become more popular, kids have felt less inclined to spend time playing outside.

If your child’s school day no longer includes recess and lunchtime outside, they may not get the natural light they need to keep their eyes healthy.

Some of the early symptoms of myopia could include:

  • Blurry or double vision
  • Squinting
  • Partially closing the eyes
  • Excessive blinking

Child sitting at a laptop in his room rubbing his eyes from digital eye strain.

Dry Eyes

Dry eye disease is a chronic medical condition that typically needs to be treated with medication or therapeutic treatments. It’s not uncommon for people to develop dry eye symptoms when they spend a lot of time in front of their computer.

When you blink, your eyelid evenly distributes tears over the surface of your eye, hydrating, cleaning, and protecting it. Normally, we blink around 20 times per minute. But that blink rate plummets to approximately 15 times per minute when we use computers and mobile devices. Fewer blinks mean the eyes have more time to dry out, which can lead to symptoms like:

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Stringy discharge
  • Periods of excess tears
  • Grittiness, dryness, or burning sensations
  • Feeling like something is stuck in the eye

Sleep Problems

Blue light has been a hot topic in eye care over the last few years. Some sources have claimed that blue light from digital devices can cause retinal damage like macular degeneration. But these claims are misleading.

High levels of blue light could cause retinal damage, however, the amount of blue light our screens emit is not nearly enough to harm your eyes. 

While blue light may not hurt your child’s retinas, it could still impact their overall health.

Your child’s brain uses an internal clock called the circadian rhythm (or wake/sleep cycle) to essentially schedule their hormones. The human body relies on hormones to regulate appetite, sleepiness, body composition, and even mood. 

 The circadian rhythm relies on light. When it’s light outside, the body understands it’s time to be active and alert. When it’s dark, the body knows it’s time to sleep and recharge.

The blue light emitted by laptops and tablets can throw off your child’s circadian rhythm when used at night. Obviously, your child’s digital classes take place during the day. But if they’re working on homework or after school activities via digital displays within 2 hours of bedtime, it could impair their ability to function and learn. 

What Can Parents Do?

Online schooling may not be the ideal situation for your family this year. But there are ways you can protect your child’s vision so they can absorb as much information as possible from online classes.

Invest in Computer Glasses

While blue light from devices may not damage your child’s eyesight, there is still some value in purchasing some computer glasses, particularly if your child gets a lot of homework or needs to use the computer for other activities in the evenings.

Schedule Daily Time Outside

Remember that spending time outside can help slow myopia development. Ensure your child goes outside to play at least a little bit every day. Of course, this may be tricky once our particularly cold winter weather rolls around. My recommendation is to bundle up on chilly days and take advantage of the sunshine as much as you can.

Set Up an Ergonomic Work Space

Workspace ergonomics are important to reduce digital eye strain, no matter who you are. The same general rules for adults apply to kids:

  1. Positions your child’s screen about an arm’s length away from them, just below their eye level.
  2. Position their screen to reduce glare and keep it free of dust or fingerprints as much as possible.
  3. Ask your child to sit with their back against the backrest, and their feet flat on the floor as much as possible.
  4. Encourage your child to sit with their shoulders relaxed and slightly back.
  5. If your child needs access to a keyboard during school, ensure the keyboard is roughly level with their elbows. They should be able to type with their elbows resting comfortably at their sides.

Most furniture isn’t made for them, so you may have to get creative. For example, if your child’s feet don’t touch the floor when sitting in their chair, place a box or small stool beneath their feet. If your child is too short in the chair, have them sit on some cushions to boost them up.

It may seem like a hassle, but it will keep your child comfortable and help them pay closer attention.

Diagram of a child on the computer showing proper ergonomics

We’ve made this handy graphic to illustrate the ideal posture for your child. Feel free to print it out and place it at your child’s workstation as a reminder to sit properly during school time.

Everyone Is Doing the Best They Can

At the risk of sounding disingenuous or sappy, I get that this isn’t necessarily ideal. But as a parent, you’re doing the best you can. You can’t make this school year seem normal to your child. But you can take a few steps to protect their visual health. And while they may not recognize it today, that’s doing your child a huge service.

Written by Kevin Hesterman

DR. KEVIN HESTERMAN
Dr. Hesterman was born in Regina, Saskatchewan. He graduated from optometry at Waterloo in 2000. He and his wife, Rhonda, have three children. He enjoys swimming, biking, and running, having completed several triathlons. Hiking, skiing, and playing the piano and guitar are other interests. He has volunteered with Big Brothers and Big Sisters and was on the executive committee for Optometry Giving Sight, a charity raising money for third world optometry. Dr. Hesterman is currently on the executive council for the Alberta Association of Optometrists.

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