How to protect children’s eyes during remote learning
Published:Saturday, 05 Sep 2020 10:09
With many school districts reopening this fall with fully remote or hybrid learning models because of the coronavirus, one thing is clear: Screen-based instruction will be the reality for hundreds of thousands of students across the country. In addition to access issues caused by the digital divide, families must also grapple with what an increased use of devices may mean for their children’s well-being, including their vision.
A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in March revealed that the majority of parents — 71% of the 3,640 surveyed with children 12 or younger — admitted to being at least somewhat concerned about their children’s spending too much time on screens. And that was before stay-at-home orders upended many families’ screen-time limits.
More time in front of screens, whether for school or for fun and connection, can result in eye strain, fatigue and headaches, but experts offer simple ways for parents to protect their kids’ eyes during a time when screens are a bigger part of everyday life.
— Keep a safe distance from devices
“With reading in general, we used to read at 16 inches” away from the eyes, according to Dr Millicent Knight, an optometrist and spokesperson for the Global Myopia Awareness Coalition. “Now, what we’re finding, particularly with phones, is that they’re reading at 10 to 12 inches away.”
At this distance, the eyes turn in to focus on the screen, as opposed to being relaxed and in the straight-ahead position when looking at something further away, Knight said. After a while, the turning in can lead to fatigue of the eye muscles, which can cause headaches or other vision problems.
While research doesn’t suggest a clear link between screen usage and myopia in children, the condition, commonly referred to as nearsightedness, is on the rise. Data from the American Optometric Association revealed that 1 in 4 parents had a child with myopia in 2018, an increase of 25% from just 40 years ago.
If left untreated, myopia can lead to a higher propensity for developing serious eye diseases later in life, including myopic macular degeneration, retinal detachment, cataracts and glaucoma.
“There’s a whole mountain of information about myopia,” said Dr David Guyton, a professor of pediatric ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins University and a pediatric ophthalmologist who has been treating patients with myopia for 40 years, “but the main fact over the past 50 years that we’ve learned is that what produces myopia is the elongation of the eye.”
Guyton said that though no one knows precisely why, that elongation seems to be caused “by the image that people are looking at getting behind the retina,” which happens when you bring something closer to you to view, like a tablet or a phone.
Dr Luke Deitz, a Los Angeles-based pediatric ophthalmologist, recommends keeping digital devices about 2 feet away and at eye-level, “or even preferably somewhat below to avoid them having to look up at the screen.” Having a screen closer than this requires our eyes to focus harder in order to keep the image sharp, which can cause strain and potentially worsen myopia, he said.
Knight suggests that children place an elbow on the table and then rest their head in that hand. From this position, they should lift their elbow and touch the screen; that is now the closest working distance they should be from their device.
— Take regular breaks
Knight advises parents and caregivers to follow the 20/20/20 Rule: “Every 20 minutes you need to look up at something 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds.” This gives eyes a break and a return to their natural position.