In the months of virtual learning during lockdown, we’ve logged an extra five billion hours online. Some news reports even suggest that some children are spending as much as six hours a day on digital devices.1, 2
With all this time spent focusing closely on digital screens — for virtual learning and leisure — it’s understandable if you’re concerned about the health of your child’s eyes. So, to help put your mind at ease, our experts have explained the potential impacts of screen time for kids, and given some top tips for keeping their eyes healthy.
How much time do children spend looking at screens?
In the UK children aged between 5-16 years spend an average of 2-3 hours per day watching television, 1-3 hours on the internet, 1-2 hour playing video games and over an hour on mobile phones (not talk), a total of 6.3 hours of screen time per day.3
According to parental control software company, Qustodio, social media app usage has increased by 130% amongst children in the UK since the beginning of the pandemic.4 Not to mention increased screen time as a result of home-schooling.
A Canadian study that examined children’s physical activity, outdoor time, screen time and social media use during the Covid lockdown in early 2020 found that 8-year-olds spent an average of more than five hours a day on screens for leisure, in addition to screen time needed for schoolwork.5
What’s the impact of digital screens on children’s eyes?
Digital devices such as laptops and tablets are important tools for education, giving children access to endless amounts of information and resources. Unfortunately, extended use of digital screens, without taking consistent breaks or the correct adjustments, could impact your child’s eyes, causing eye strain, soreness and may even contribute to the development or progression of short sight (myopia).
Digital eye strain
Digital eye strain is a very common condition that occurs from prolonged screen time. Spending too much time focusing on digital devices means your child’s eyes may become fatigued, and sitting too close to screens can also strain their eye muscles. Light glare reflected on digital screens can also make this worse, causing children to strain their eyes even more.
As our clinical services director Giles Edmond explains, ‘the eyes can often become strained when focusing on screens for a long period of time. Symptoms to look out for in your children include eye discomfort, headaches, sore or tired eyes, difficulty focusing, dry eyes, blurred or double vision, and increased sensitivity to light.’
Myopia, or short-sightedness, refers to the difficulty that some people have focusing on objects at a distance, while close objects can be seen clearly. It is difficult to pinpoint specific causes of short-sightedness, but there has been some research to explain possible contributing factors to the condition.
The NHS says, while it can often run in the family, short-sightedness may be linked to ‘focusing on nearby objects, such as books and computers, for long periods during childhood’.6 Further research has found that children are twice as likely to experience myopia now than 50 years ago, which could also be linked to the increase in digital screen use during childhood, alongside an overall decrease in outdoor time.7
So, it is possible that the extended use of digital screens without breaks and spending less time outside may increase the risk of children becoming short-sighted. Many children returning to school after the long summer break may begin having trouble focusing on objects that are further away, such as the whiteboard or smartboard in the classroom.
Does blue light impact children’s eyes?
Recently, there has been a lot of mention of blue light and the potential effects that exposure may have on the eyes, including in children. Ultimately, there is no definitive research to suggest that the blue light from digital screens can have a negative impact on your child’s eyes. What many people believe to be ‘blue light damage’ is usually just digital eye strain that occurs as a result of frequent screen use or an underlying small prescription relating to myopia (short-sightedness) or hyperopia (long-sightedness).
Find more information about blue light here.
Back to school tips for keeping children’s eyes healthy
While it’s not possible for your child to stop using screens altogether, there are a few things you can do to help protect your child’s eye health.
How much screen time is too much?
It’s difficult to suggest a fixed limit to screen time for kids, as recommendations can often depend on many factors such as age and usage. To help you set a reasonable limit, you should think about the needs of your child (for example, if they need to use their laptop to do school work), and how much the use of the screens seem to interrupt their other activities (like social activities or sleep). If you think about these factors, you should be able to set a realistic screen time for kids.
For further guidance, visit the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child’s Health for their recommendations.
Follow the 20:20:20 rule
The 20:20:20 rule is simple. It means your child should look away from their screen every 20 minutes, and look at something 20 feet away, for at least 20 seconds. You should encourage your child to follow this rule as it will relax their eye muscles and help to reduce the risk of many symptoms of digital eye strain.
Adjust their screen positioning
It’s also important to make sure all digital devices or screens are at the correct distance for your child. The screen should be slightly below their eye level, as looking up at screens widens the eyes and dries them out quicker.
Another guide for screen distance is the 1-2-10 rule. This says that mobile phones should ideally be one foot away, laptops and computer screens should be two feet away, and televisions should be 10 feet away. This would allow your child’s eyes to focus properly on screens at the correct distance.
Schedule some outside time
Children should also be encouraged to make the most of their outside breaks. The time spent outside will not only give the eyes a rest from focusing on a screen or the board, but will also give the mind a chance to slow down and relax too.
Water is important for every aspect of your health - and your eye health isn’t any different. Staying hydrated will help to avoid dry eyes, so it is good for students to keep their water bottle close by and topped up.
Establish media-free times
It’s also a good idea to arrange some media-free times every day to help reduce your child’s eye fatigue and remove any fixation or reliance on digital devices. This could be establishing ‘screen-free’ time in the evenings, using this time to connect as a family — with parents leading by example and turning off their digital devices too.
Book annual eye exams
If you’ve noticed a change in your child’s vision over the past few months, or they’ve reported some of the symptoms above, it’s best to arrange an eye test. We recommend that children have their eyes tested every year to ensure their eyes remain healthy during this important developmental stage.
Contact your local store to book an appointment with one of our experts.
1. Koh, Elizabeth, and Fitch, Asa, ‘A Coronavirus Surges in Screen Time Boosts Chip Makers’, The Wall Street Journal. (2020). [online] Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-coronavirus-surge-in-screen-time-boosts-chip-makers-11588066203. [accessed 28/8/20]
2. Algar, Selim, ‘Screen Time for Kids Explodes during Coronavirus crisis, study says’, New York Post. (2020). [online] Available at: https://nypost.com/2020/04/23/screen-time-for-kids-explodes-during-coronavirus-crisis-study/. [accessed 28/8/20]
3. NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (2021), Screen Time [online]. Available at: https://www.nhsggc.org.uk/about-us/professional-support-sites/screen-time/#:~:text=In%20the%20UK%20children%20aged,of%20screen%20time%20per%20day [accessed 13/5/21]
4. Qustodio (2020) Annual report on children’s digital habits [online]. Available at: https://qweb.cdn.prismic.io/qweb/e59c2e0f-ef4f-4598-b330-10c430e2ec71_Qustodio+2020+Annual+Report+on+Children%27s+Digital+Habits.pdf [accessed feb 2021]
5. Moore et al. (2020), “Impact of the COVID-19 virus outbreak on movement and play behaviours ofCanadian children and youth: a national survey”, in International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity (2020) 17:85. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-020-00987-8 [accessed 13/5/21]
6. NHS, ‘What causes short-sightedness?’, Overview: Short-sightedness (myopia) (2018). [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/short-sightedness/#:~:text=Short%2Dsightedness%2C%20or%20myopia%2C,and%20is%20becoming%20more%20common. [accessed 28/8/20]
7. McCullough, S., O’Donoghue, L., and Saunders, K., (2016), Six Year Refractive Change among While Children and Young Adults: Evidence for Significant Increase in Myopia among White UK Children. [online]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0146332. [accessed 28/8/20]
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