Q: Is there anything that can help my son, who complains that his eyes hurt after a long day of virtual learning?
A: Children spend more time than ever staring at digital screens — on computers, tablets, TVs, smartphones and other devices. All that screen time can take a toll on children's well-being, including how their eyes may feel.
Research shows that children begin zooming in on digital media devices, such as their parents' tablets or smartphones, as young as 6 months old. By their teens, studies have found, kids spend nearly 7 hours a day using screened-based media, watching TV, playing video games, and using social media. Especially if they're having fun, children might keep playing and watching to the point of eye-rubbing exhaustion.
Amid the pandemic, children are spending even more time on their laptops and computers if they are doing virtual learning.
Staring at a screen for long stretches without taking breaks can cause symptoms such as:
– Eye fatigue. Muscles around the eye, like any others, can get tired from continued use. Concentrating on a screen for extended periods can cause concentration difficulties and headaches centered around the temple and eyes. Children may also use screen devices where lighting is less than ideal, causing fatigue from squinting.
– Blurry vision. Gazing at the same distance for an extended time can cause the eye's focusing system to spasm or temporarily "lock up." This condition, called an accommodation spasm, causes a child's vision to blur when he or she looks away from the screen. Some studies also suggest computer use and other close-up indoor activities may fuel rising rates of myopia (nearsightedness) among children, although this is not yet proven. More time playing outside may result in healthier vision development in children.
– Dry eyes. Studies show that people blink significantly less often when concentrating on a digital screen, which can leave eyes dry and irritated. Desktop and laptop computer use can be especially tough on children's eyes, because they're usually situated higher up in the visual field than a book, for example. As a result, the upper eyelids tend to be open wider — speeding up evaporation of the eye's tear film.
Parents can do the following things:
– Monitor screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics family media use plan and related reports target issues ranging from obesity to sleep problems linked to too much screen time. Although children's screen time has understandably increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, the AAP encourages parents to do their best to help keep some balance between the digital and real world. Two especially important aspects of this are making sure screen time doesn’t cut into exercise and sleep.