Virtual learning raises concerns about children’s vision

Expert shares steps to reduce risks

With most students starting school virtually, extra screen time will be unavoidable.
With most students starting school virtually, extra screen time will be unavoidable.

ROYAL OAK, Mich. – With most students starting school virtually, extra screen time will be unavoidable.

Even children going back to class face-to-face will be spending more time on computers than ever before.

That has a lot of parents wondering, what will the impact be on children's vision?

We asked Dr. Rajesh Rao, chief of pediatric ophthalmology at Beaumont Hospital, if parents should be concerned.

“The screen time issue was a problem before the pandemic. Now with the schools going virtual, even more so,” said Rao.

That can cause issues for some children.

"The more common issues are short term, what we call eye strain, digital eye strain, if you will. That leads to discomfort of your eyes, tiredness feeling, dryness of the eyes, and these are things that really just require you to take some rest," explained Rao.

Screen time breaks

Frequent screen time breaks will be essential.

"If you're running and your legs get tired, you stop. Same thing if you're on the screen and your eyes get tired, then you need to take a break," said Rao.

A good guideline - the rule of 20/20/20.

"After 20 minutes of screen time, you should look at something, at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds. That lets your eyes kind of rest, get back to neutral," said Rao. "It might be helpful to set a timer. Every 20 minutes, take a break, step away from the screen, look out a window or look at something in the distance for 20, 30 seconds, then they can go back and reset the timer."

Rao says the evidence is mixed on the long-term impact of excess screen time.

"There is some evidence that it might increase nearsightedness," said Rao. "There is a global increase in the amount of nearsightedness or myopia. More kids get glasses, and they get them at an earlier age. In the U.S., for instance, about 40 percent of children will get glasses. That's up from about 25 percent maybe 20, 30 years ago, and in other countries, like in some Asian countries, that number is as high as 80 percent."

Get outdoors often

In addition to frequent breaks, Rao says make it a priority to get outdoors often. Studies find children who spend more time outdoors actually reduce their risk of nearsightedness.

It's also important to pay close attention to the position of your child's computer.

"Kids like to hold things closer than we would like them to," said Rao.

The computer screen should be at least 16 inches to 24 inches away from a child's face and slightly below eye level.

"It's important to have good lighting as well and good contrast on your screen. Your eyes do get more fatigued if you're in poor lighting," said Rao.

What about special computer glasses that claim to block blue light? Rao says there is no evidence they reduce digital eye strain.

"What causes the strain is the amount of time spent on the screen, so not so much the blue light. Now, having said that, there's no evidence the blue light glasses are harmful in any way either. It does probably make the screen a little bit darker, and if somebody finds comfort in that, meaning they like that better, then there's no harm in doing it, but it's not something I recommend," said Rao.

Vision problem warning signs

Virtual learning may have another serious impact beyond screen time. In a classroom, teachers are often the first to notice problems with kids’ vision, and most children won’t be receiving vision screenings that would have been done in school.

"We are concerned that kids may not get the proper screening and subsequent care that's required to follow up on those screenings. So parents do need to be aware of some important symptoms," cautioned Rao.

Those warnings signs include squinting and any eye drifting - either inward or outward. Children may also turn their head to try and see better. Another common symptom - losing interest in something quickly.

"A child that's not seeing well, or whose eyes are fatiguing is not going to be able to function well in their schoolwork, is not going to be able to maintain their level of interest that we'd like to see," said Rao.

If you notice any symptoms, call your child's eye doctor right away.

"There are many problems that can only be treated within a certain timeframe, especially amblyopia or lazy eye. Once they get beyond five or six, it becomes much more difficult to treat those problems," explained Rao.

While some parents have put off routine eye exams because of concerns about COVID-19, Rao says it's important to get any issues evaluated quickly.

“We have seen kids that have probably waited longer than they needed to,” said Rao. “I certainly encourage parents to seek eye care and not delay, especially in younger kids.”

More: Good Health stories

About the Authors:

Dr. McGeorge can be seen on Local 4 News helping Metro Detroiters with health concerns when he isn't helping save lives in the emergency room at Henry Ford Hospital.