Parents Can Help Kids Avoid This Complication of Distance Learning

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In recent years, parents have had to remain vigilant over the amount of time children spend in front of screens.

But with technology rapidly evolving and even young children spending increased time in front of tablets, computers, and smart phones, we’re all spending more time staring at screens than ever before.

Now that most school systems across the country are doing some form of virtual learning as the pandemic continues, all this additional screen time is affecting our children in ways we may not have thought about.

Many adults have jobs that require them to be on the computer for hours a day, and virtually everyone in this day and age is dependent on some form of digital device.

Besides the obvious emotional dangers of spending too much time focusing on social media or playing video games, the increase in online learning this year can also impact kids’ physical health.

As adults know quite well, sitting at a desk and staring at a computer screen for several hours a day can cause headaches, fatigue, back and neck pain, and eye strain.

The issues are even more problematic for children who are still developing, and optometrists are now sounding the alarm about the consequences that virtual learning may have on children’s eyesight.

Myopia, also known as nearsightedness, is the most common vision problem in children and young adults under 40 — but eye doctors say this condition is skyrocketing at an alarming rate in recent years as we’ve spent more time in front of digital devices.

Although more research is needed and no clear link has been made, optometrists and ophthalmologists expect virtual learning to only increase the frequency of this diagnosis.

In 2000, before smartphones and tablets were universally used by kids and teens, around 25 percent of the world’s population was diagnosed with myopia.

Doctors expect to see this number explode to include half of the population of the world in the next thirty years.  As recently as 2018, a quarter of children were thought to be nearsighted.

Myopia is caused when the eyeball elongates in relation to the focus of the cornea and lens.  Instead of light focusing on the surface of the eye, it is focused on a point in front of the retina.

Dr. Millicent Knight, an expert in myopia, explained to the New York Times that when we look at reading materials like books and magazines, we tend to hold them about 16 inches from our eyes.  Now, with smartphones in particular, we are holding these devices much closer to our eyes, from between ten to 12 inches away.

This causes the eye to turn and strain, rather than focus on something further away in a straight-ahead line of sight.

This can lead to strain on the muscles of the eye which often cause headaches – and which can lead to other vision problems.

If myopia is not corrected by eyeglasses or contact lenses, other serious diseases of the eye can develop down the road, including macular degeneration and retinal detachment – which can lead to partial blindness – glaucoma and cataracts.

As children are spending more time in front of a computer screen or tablet while distance learning, there are several things parents can do to help prevent eye strain and the development of myopia.

Dr. Knight and other optometrists recommend “keeping an eye” on how close your child is sitting to their laptop, tablet or other devices.  Two feet away is ideal if possible, and this may require adjusting the height of their desk or chair to provide more distance.

Dr. Knight also recommends that parents follow a “20-20-20 Rule” in which kids look up from the screen every 20 minutes to focus on something at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds in order to allow the eyes to properly refocus.

Both adults and children should take frequent breaks from viewing their devices.

While this may be difficult during long work sessions or school meetings, getting up and walking around as much as possible not only gives our eyes a break, but also helps with stiffness and headache from sitting too long.

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It is also worth noting that these physicians do not recommend so-called “blue light blocking” glasses that are advertised as helping with eye strain from extended screen time.  There has been no proof they are safe or effective and cannot be counted on to prevent eye strain, especially in children.

Above all, we must be vigilant for signs that our children are struggling with vision issues.

Do they frequently rub their eyes, blink excessively, or have dry or red eyes?  Do they complain of headaches and fatigue?  Are younger children more tired and cranky after working at the computer?

These are all signs they may getting a damaging amount of screen time and calls for a check-up with their eye doctor.

The American Optometry Association (AOA) recommends that children should have their first eye exam (which many pediatricians can conduct) around six months of age, following by a more comprehensive exam when they are preschool age.

They should also have an eye exam before entering elementary school around age five, followed by a check-up every two years with an optometrist — unless vision issues are found, in which case, they may need more frequent visits.

So, let’s protect our kids’ eyes – and overall health – by keeping our eyes peeled on how our kids are doing as they learn from a distance this school year!

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