Screen Time and Vision: Protecting Kids’ Eyes with Healthy Habits as School Shifts to Virtual and Blended Learning

The shift to virtual and blended learning to reduce the spread of COVID-19 could have an unintended consequence for children's vision.

One in four school-age children is affected by vision problems, which in turn can affect everything from self-esteem to academic outcomes. - Photo: AdobeStock
Photo: AdobeStock
One in four school-age children is affected by vision problems, which in turn can affect everything from self-esteem to academic outcomes.

The shift to virtual and blended learning to reduce the spread of COVID-19 could have an unintended consequence for children's vision.

Chief Eye Care Officer with UnitedHealthcare Dr. Scott Edmonds explained the increased screen time raises the risk of digital eye strain and possible retinal damage from high-energy blue light. He said looking at a screen closer than 30 inches away also can cause vision problems, including nearsightedness.

Edmonds suggested following what's known as the '20-20-20 Rule.'

"Every 20 minutes, you need to look at an object 20 feet away or further, for 20 seconds," said Edmonds. "That not only cuts all the exposure to all the blue light, it also gives the muscles in the eye a rest from sustained contraction. Just 20 seconds is all you really need, and then they can go back to their digital devices."

He added the inability to see clearly can affect a child's physical, emotional and social development, which also can hinder their academic progress. Warnings signs of vision problems include squinting, difficulty with hand-eye coordination, or dizziness when watching something in 3-D.

If practicing healthy vision habits doesn't seem to be improving a child's symptoms, Edmonds said blue-light blocking devices or glasses are helpful.

"The blue-blocking lenses are best done with a professional eye exam," said Edmonds. "So not only do you have the blue light filters, but at ideal focus, so that the two eyes are equally focused at the desired distance for screen time."

Edmonds noted that while glasses or contact lenses can correct vision problems, there can be long-term consequences of nearsightedness.

"Problems like retinal detachment or myopic degeneration, where it continues to grow past your 20s and you become extremely nearsighted," said Edmonds. "Cataracts have been also found with people that are highly nearsighted or myopic. So, the disease is not benign, in the long run."

About 41% of Americans are affected by nearsightedness, compared to 25% in 1970.

The American Optometric Association recommends comprehensive eye exams for children starting in their first year of life; then at age three; and again before they enter kindergarten to screen for poor eye alignment, focusing problems and other vision issues.

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