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Caring for Your Kids’ Eyes: How Screen Time & Virtual Learning Are Taking a Toll

Posted on Aug 19, 2020

The teen is in his dark room looking at a computer screen, which is used to illustrate one of the tips for eye health, avoiding screens before bed because the blue light in screens wakes you up.
One tip is for children to avoid screens before bed, because the blue light in screens wakes you up.

From digital learning to stay-at-home orders, it is undeniably hard to avoid extra screen time this year. Since the COVID-19 pandemic started in March 2020, many families find themselves at home and kids using electronic devices much more frequently. Pediatric ophthalmologist Samantha Roland, M.D., at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital has seen the effects it’s having on the eyes of kids and teens, and shares what she’s seeing in the clinic and tips for parents on good reading habits.

What are some of the side effects of increased screen time?

One of the main side effects Roland is seeing is significantly dry eyes, which can result in a condition called blepharospasms. This condition can be confused with a benign tic syndrome and presents as uncontrolled or excessive blinking. Ocular irritation, or dry eye syndrome, is often linked to focused eye activity, like being on tablets/screens and reading.

Normal blink rate is about eight to 21 times a minute. Blinking is to the cornea what windshield wipers are to a windshield. Blinking allows for a fresh layer of tears to lubricate and clear the surface of the eye. When we engage in focused activities, the blink rate goes down leading to dry eyes.

Another unintended side effect of screen time can induce myopia, also known as near-sightedness (a disorder where far away objects appear blurry). Roland is prescribing glasses to correct for myopia at earlier ages. The pandemic could accelerate this growing condition.

Top 5 Good Reading Habits

  1. Don’t read in bed. The book is generally too close to a child’s face, and the child does have to work harder to focus.
  2. Keep the book or device 14-16 inches away from the eyes.
  3. Read in good lighting.
  4. Take breaks! For every 20 minutes of near-focused activity, take at least a 20 second break looking at something that is at least 20 feet away. 
  5. Screens wake you up because of the blue light. Try to avoid screens before bedtime. 

When should a child be evaluated?

Blinking or rolling eyes should be examined by an ophthalmologist if it is persistent or if the eyes are red and the child has other symptoms like light sensitivity. If there are concerns about vision (eye misalignment, failed vision screens or other abnormalities), earlier interventions usually result in better vision outcomes. The sooner a child can be seen by a doctor, the better. The vision system develops rapidly when children are younger and will start slowing down as early as 4-6 years of age. Early intervention is key as a child’s vision development is typically complete by age 9.

Samantha Roland, M.D., is on the medical staff of Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, Inc. (“JHACH”), but is an independent practitioner who is not an employee or agent of JHACH.

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