It’s becoming a running joke about kids having their noses buried in their phones and tablets, but behind the humor is a serious threat.
Adults are guilty of this too, and it can be bad for our vision, but our children’s eyes are precious and we should do our part to protect them. If we set up some guidelines for our kids, it wouldn’t hurt for us to follow them also.
What is Screen Time?
When we say “screen time” we are referring to the amount of time a person is looking at a digital display. This can be a computer monitor, a phone, tablet, or television. The Vision Council recently reported that 72% of parents in the United States say that their kids are on their screens more than two hours a day. That estimate is probably lower than reality. Children are probably on a screen more than parents know and parents may be reluctant to state the actual time their kids are being babysat by a screen.
It used to be that it was just older kids that had phones and tablets, but now you’ll see kids that can’t walk, playing games on a screen.
Why is Screen Time a Problem?
If your job involves a computer screen, you may experience problems associated with eye strain and other problems. Some issues that your child may encounter when using a screen include irritability, headaches, changes in behavior, neck pain, problems with attention, and lastly, eye strain, dry eyes, and sore eyes. These problems are bad enough to deal with as an adult, but you can imagine how it can impact a child’s performance in school and interacting with others.
The next time you go to a school function, notice how many of the students are wearing glasses. Part of this is that parents are better about getting their children in for eye exams, treating problems earlier than they did even a generation ago. However, there is another component to the rise in glasses for school-aged children. Electronic devices are linked to a rise in nearsightedness, also known as myopia. Studies by The Vision Council state that in the 1970s only about 25% of children had myopia, compared with numbers around 50% today.
How do Screens Cause Problems?
You may have heard about “blue light”, especially in how it interrupts our sleep pattern. Monitors, phones, and tablets emit a wide range of visible light with a portion of it falling in the spectrum of blue light. This light is a high-energy visible light that can cause problems. The wavelengths of blue light are shorter with higher energy than the other light that is emitted from the screen. Many researchers agree that some of the bands of blue light can damage the light-sensitive retina of the eye.
In addition to the damage to the retina, blue light can also disrupt our circadian rhythm. This is the cycle that tells our brain when to sleep and when to wake. The blue light from a screen can cause that cycle to become irregular, causing problems in falling asleep and staying asleep. Many studies show the health problems associated with not having enough sleep.
Children and Blue Light
We all have exposure to the blue light spectrum from the sun, but the screens add additional exposure. Some could argue that children don’t go outside as much, but that is no excuse to allow more blue light from artificial sources. The blue light from the sun comes during the daytime, obviously, but the light from screens can happen anytime, especially at night. You may have caught your kid texting or playing a game after they were supposed to be sleeping, so there are probably other times that you are unaware that they are using their screens.
The risks from too much screen time can be immediate or build up over time.
Some of the immediate risks include sleep disruption or insomnia. This can lead to your child being sleepy during school and, in turn, doing poorly academically. Healthwise, sleep problems can lead to obesity and weight-related issues. People of all ages that have trouble sleeping show signs of mood disorders, depression, and feelings of loneliness. There have also been some links between screen use and the development of ADHD in children and teenagers, although there is some discussion on whether there is a direct cause-and-effect relationship.
Long-term effects are more difficult to pinpoint because the previous generation didn’t have the level of blue light exposure that today’s youth does. Although it may take a while before we completely understand the long-term risks of screen time, we can see that it is probably a good decision to limit blue light exposure. There have been studies that show a correlation between blue light exposure and macular degeneration. The subjects were older, but this would seem to point towards the idea of limiting the exposure in younger people. Premature aging and damage can only lead to bigger problems as the person gets older.
Tips for Limiting Screen Time
We want the best for our kids and we know they enjoy playing games and using their phones, so how can we help keep them safe while not completely banning them from their devices? Here are some tips for limiting the amount of blue light that reaches our children’s eyes.
- Blue Light Filters – There are filters that can be applied to the surface of your child’s phone, tablet, or monitor. These can be purchased from a variety of sources or applied through an app like f.lux or Iris. If the offending screen is on a computer using Windows 10 or Mac OS, there are built-in filters that you can turn on. You can find detailed instructions on the Digital Trends site here.
- Blue Blocking Eyeglasses or Sunglasses – Another option is to have your child wear eyeglasses that have lenses designed to reduce blue light exposure. There are a number of lenses on the market that does this, along with anti-reflective coatings that are applied to the lenses. As we said above, the sun also emits blue light, so it’s a good idea to have a quality pair of polarized sunglasses when outside.
- Limit Screen Time – This one can be the most difficult, depending on your child. Children and adults alike should have a “no-screen” rule that begins one to two hours before bedtime. Many devices also have a parental setting that you can use to limit your child’s use. You’ll have to research the application as each device will be different. Take the screen-free time to do something together: read a book, put a puzzle together, play a board game. Your child may grumble at first about not getting to play on their device, but they will appreciate having some quality time with you.
- Schedule an Eye Exam – You and your child should both have an annual eye exam. The doctor will be able to monitor your vision and eye health and be ahead of any problems that may be beginning. You can also ask for their advice about blue light protection options.
Be Proactive and Save Your Child’s Vision
We can all take a break from our devices to help our eye health. We all want our children to be healthy and happy, so do your part to protect their vision. If you lead by example, you will be helping your own eyes, also.
Contact the eye care team at Dr. Myers Eye Vision Center to learn more about what you can do to reduce screen time and blue light exposure.