If huge amounts of screen time has you worried about your child’s vision, you’re not alone. Emerging research shows kids may be more susceptible to developing myopia, or nearsightedness, and worsening myopia due to increased screen time during remote learning. Because kids aren’t on alert for eye problems, you should pay attention to subtle signs or complaints. “Your child may not tell you he or she is having difficulty,” says Noah Tannen, OD, optometrist board-certified in vision therapy and neuro-optometric rehabilitation and in private practice at Eyecare Professionals in Hamilton. “Watch for symptoms that need investigating, such as squinting, getting close to things to read or tripping.” Other symptoms of potential vision problems that need to be checked out include redness or pain, watery or itchy eyes, a child who loses where they are on the page when reading or a kid who turns their head to the side to look at something that should be in their peripheral vision.
Here’s what else you need to know to keep your child’s eyes healthy for a lifetime:
ENCOURAGE BREAKS FROM SCREEN TIME
A recent study showed that second and third graders’ myopia incidence doubled from November and December 2019 to November and December 2020. Another showed that myopia progressed significantly in 2020 among 6- to 8-year-olds. While more research is needed to clarify if there’s a definite link between increased screen time and myopia during remote learning, eye doctors say anecdotally they have seen a recent uptick in eye complaints in kids. “I’ve had more kids this year complaining of dry eye than I’ve ever seen,” says Rudolph Wagner, MD, clinical professor of ophthalmology and director of pediatric ophthalmology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “It’s probably because we all blink less when staring at the computer.”
Help your kids manage screen time more efficiently by encouraging them to follow the 20-20-20 rule, says Wagner. “Teach your child to work for 20 minutes, then look 20 feet away at something for 20 seconds. If necessary, set a timer to give eyes a break.” This goes for you, too! Over-the-counter lubricating drops can help. Limiting screen time, such as before bed and at the dinner table, can also reduce eye fatigue.
PAY ATTENTION TO CHANGES
For the first few years of life, your pediatrician will do a basic eye screening at well-child checkups. But before your child starts school or whenever you suspect a problem, schedule a more thorough checkup by a pediatric optometrist or pediatric ophthalmologist to examine both the front and back of the eye, including the retina and optic nerve. “Your child should also be evaluated if there’s a family history of eye conditions such as lazy eye,” says Tannen. If your child is squinting, rubbing his or her eyes or complaining about blurry vision, talk to your eye doctor (even if they were seen recently or have a new prescription).
GET YOUR KIDS OUTSIDE
Before the pandemic and all this extra screen time, nearsightedness had increased significantly in kids in recent decades, occurring in about a quarter of kids in the 1970s to more than 50 percent of kids nowadays. “It’s become the norm, not the exception,” says Tannen. “It’s clearly not just genetics. Research has shown the most significant factor is the amount of light a child is exposed to from a young age.” Many studies have shown that kids who spend the most time outdoors, which offers a break from screens and gives eye muscles a chance to relax, are less likely to develop nearsightedness. Ideally, that means getting kids outside about two hours a day, but anything is better than nothing.
KNOW WHAT TO ASK THE EYE DOCTOR
It’s not just that your kids will need to wear glasses if they’re nearsighted: Myopia also makes a person more prone to developing certain diseases in the future such as glaucoma, retinal detachment and myopic macular degeneration. If your child suffers from myopia, ask their eye doctor about rigid gas permeable lenses that reshape the cornea. “These contacts are worn while sleeping to mold the cornea into a new shape so the vision is corrected and your child can see clearly,” says Tannen. “A byproduct is that it tricks the eye into stabilizing so myopia advances less quickly. But it’s a long-term commitment, not a quick fix.” It’s important to note these contacts can’t reverse a prescription, they aren’t covered by insurance and not all eye doctors fit these lenses. Ask your child’s eye doctor for a referral, or find a doctor trained in corneal refractive therapy.
MAKE SURE YOUR CHILD WEARS EYE PROTECTION
If your kids are active in sports, it’s important to protect their vision with the right eyewear, says Wagner. About 90 percent of serious eye injuries can be prevented with protective eyewear, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Protective sports glasses with shatterproof plastic polycarbonate lenses are recommended for sports such as basketball (the leading cause of sports-related injuries), baseball, softball, racquetball and hockey. And if your child already has vision issues, such as lazy eye, the right eye protection is even more important.