Virtual Learning Puts Focus on Eye Strains

September 9, 2020

As kids stare at screens more than ever, many parents wonder if it's causing long-term vision damage.

According to Dr. Maria Stunkel, Mercy Clinic Children's Eye Specialists, the answer is no.

“While increased screen time in kids has not been shown to cause lasting damage to vision, it can lead to a few problems like digital eye strain and dry eye,” Dr. Stunkel said.

Digital eye strain is exactly what it sounds like - tired, strained eyes after looking at a screen for long periods of time. Taking breaks between long sessions of screen time is key. A guideline to use for breaks is to follow the 20-20-20 rule.

“For every 20 minutes of screen time, look at something 20 feet away (optical infinity), for 20 seconds,” Dr. Stunkel explained. “If you aren't using a timer, then try to take breaks when they are convenient, like at the end of a virtual lesson for school.” 

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Dr. Stunkel recommends working in a room with adequate light that most closely mimics the illumination of the computer or tablet screen. She said, “Working in a dark room will not have lasting detrimental effects on vision, but may increase eye strain.”

Blue blocking glasses don’t help with digital eye strain so Dr. Stunkel said it's better to invest in a good pair of sunglasses to wear outside, where most of our blue light exposure occurs.

Dry eye is also part of digital eye strain and usually the result of blinking less when we are intently staring at the screen. Another version of dry eye is arising as masks are required in public. Mask-associated dry eye is related to excess air flow across the eyes for most of the day, making kids and adults prone to dryness. The remedy for this is the use artificial tears during the day, but avoid drops that "keep the red out.”

“For masks without the metal nose piece, some people find it helpful to put tape on the top of the mask (paper tape is safe for skin) or to place a folded tissue over the nose to absorb extra moisture and block airflow through the top of the mask,” Dr. Stunkel explained. “These interventions also may help prevent fogging eye glasses while wearing a mask.”

Dr. Stunkel also warns about an increased risk of myopia, or nearsightedness, which is becoming a worldwide epidemic.

“Kids with myopia have doubled since the 1970s in the United States,” Dr. Stunkel said, “and it’s thought to be due to increased time spent with near work - not just screens, but books/schoolwork as well.”

It’s important to keep regular vision screenings for kids to monitor for myopia or other eye conditions. Symptoms of myopia include trouble seeing far away and/or needing to holding items close to the face to see them. The best intervention to reduce your child's risk of developing myopia is to spend time outdoors each day, ideally 30 minutes or more.

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