We are standing at the edge of the digital age. Thanks to ever-changing technology, the way our kids grow up will be completely different from the way we grew up. And the way our grandkids grow up will be completely different from the way our kids grow up.
Of course, new technology makes life better in countless ways. For example, we have access to pretty much all of the knowledge in the world at any given point. We carry endless information in our pockets and purses, and we have the ability to learn about unique cultures and experiences without even leaving the house.
However, new technology does often come with drawbacks. One of which is we tend to accept and integrate new technology into our lives without fully understanding what kind of impact they’ll have on our health. What’s worse, even if we do know what sort of impact these devices may have, society relies on new technology. If we want to participate in modern civilization, we have to be willing to embrace the tech.
Take mobile devices for instance. Smartphones and tablets have made parenting easier in a lot of ways. There are lots of great apps to help kids learn their letters and numbers, and streaming video on a tablet is an easy way to keep kids occupied while you try to get a few things done.
But some parents don’t realize that the screen time we allow our kids to have creates permanent and negative effects on their vision. Other parents realize that digital displays can be harmful for a child’s vision, but also understand that a child needs screens for school, homework, and normal socialization with other kids their age.
As a parent, I think it’s important to know how screen time can be damaging to your child’s vision and what we can do to mitigate that risk.
What Does Screen Time Do to My Child’s Eyes?
Digital Eye Strain
Imagine holding your arm straight up in the air. it would feel fine for a few minutes. after an hour, your arm would be stiff and your shoulder would feel quite sore. After 8 hours, you would be in significant pain. Your muscles were never meant to maintain a single position for hours and hours.
This is similar to what happens to our eyes when we stare at screens all day. Our eyes get tired from focussing on the same point for far too long. We call this digital eye strain. What makes this problem worse is that our blink rate tends to decrease significantly when we’re looking at digital displays. In fact, studies show that we only blink about 33% as often as we normally would when we’re in front of a screen. A lower blink rate allows your eyes to get dry and sore.
Blue Light Exposure
One of the elements that sets digital eye strain apart from other types of eye strain is blue light.
Bluelight is a specific frequency of ultraviolet light which is commonly emitted by digital displays like phones, tablets, and laptops. Blue light is very difficult for your eye to focus because of the way it scatters. As a result, your eye has to work extra hard to make sense of the blue light it takes in.
But blue light does more than contribute to digital eye strain. It can harm your eyes on a cellular level.
Excessive exposure to blue light damages the very light-sensitive cells in the retina. This damage is similar to macular degeneration, which is one of the leading causes of blindness worldwide. Kids are particularly sensitive to blue light; their eyes’ natural lenses allow more blue light to penetrate than the lens of an adult eye.
The effect of blue light is cumulative, meaning the more time a child spends in front of a screen without adequate protection, the more severe the damage will be.
The Potential Link to the Myopia Epidemic
Myopia or nearsightedness has become increasingly common in kids over the last few years. What’s more, kids seem to be developing it at younger and younger ages. Scientists do not yet know what exactly is causing this epidemic, however, many suspect it’s related to the ever-growing exposure kids have to screens. Researchers have noticed that a major spike in childhood myopia seems to align with the introduction of smartphones in 2007. They go on to say that reading at a distance of 20 centimeters (which is typical for smartphones) makes a child 8 times more likely to develop myopia.
Strategies for Limiting Screen Time
Because blue light has a cumulative effect on eye health, it’s important to limit your child’s exposure as much as possible. However, it’s impossible to live a well-rounded and balanced life today without encountering screens at least once a day. There are strategies you can use to limit screen time for your kids, but there are also safety precautions you can and should take.
For example, computer glasses or blue light lenses are designed to filter out some of the blue light emitted by digital displays. Just like wearing sunglasses helps protect your eyes from UV damage, computer glasses can help protect your child’s vulnerable eyes from the effect of blue light.
Wait to Introduce Screens
Once your child becomes an adult or even a preteen, they will most likely need to use screens on a regular basis. The best way to keep their exposure to digital screens low is to avoid them as much as possible during infancy. It’s best to keep screen time to an absolute minimum until your child reaches the age of two or so.
Between the ages of 2 and 5, you should limit screen exposure to a maximum of 1 hour a day. As tempting as it is to keep your child occupied with Netflix, it’s better to use that hour of screen time for educational games and apps. Once the kids are in school, they’ll most likely need to start using screens to complete homework. In order to sustain their eye health, it’s recommended that you continue to limit their screen time to an hour a day outside of school work. You should also implement 2-minute breaks every 30 minutes to give your child’s eyes a rest.
Make Time Outside a Requirement
Studies indicate that spending time outside is largely beneficial for a child’s eye health. Encourage your child to play outside for at least 45 minutes a day as often as weather allows. The more time kids spend playing outside, the better. One study indicates that kids need to spend 76 minutes outside a day to reduce their likelihood of developing myopia by 50%.
Remember that playing on a mobile device or even reading a book outside doesn’t count. The idea is to allow your child’s eyes to focus at a different distance than they would while staring at a screen.
No Screens 1 Hour Before Bedtime
Sleep is hugely important for children of all ages. In fact, teenagers need about as much sleep as toddlers do. Screens can wreak havoc with a child’s sleep schedule, particularly since blue light suppresses melatonin, the hormone that makes us feel sleepy at night.
Exposure to blue light before bed makes it more difficult to fall asleep and often results in a disrupted REM cycle. Even if your child does get a full 8 hours of sleep, spending time on a device before bedtime is likely to make them feel sleepy when they wake up.
Screen Time Isn’t All Bad
Of course, screens aren’t inherently evil. Technology has allowed us to achieve so much and still manages to surprise us with beneficial qualities all the time. For example, recent data has emerged suggesting that some video games can actually be good for your vision in the real world.
The most important thing is to find out the benefits and risks associated with new technology as it comes out, and take steps to protect your children appropriately.