To provide our community with important public health information, The Register-Guard is making this content free to read. To support important local journalism like this, please consider becoming a digital subscriber.
In the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing more children in PeaceHealth Medical Group University District Optometry Clinic with dry, itchy eyes, headaches and other symptoms of eye strain.
I suspect this is mostly from increased screen time, as schools shifted to remote learning to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and kids also have spent more time at home playing games and watching movies on their cell phones and tablets.
It would be easy to blame digital devices for eye strain, as well as for the worldwide rise in myopia, or nearsightedness, but there’s more to the story.
The actual reason for these trends is the growing percentage of each day that we spend doing “near” activities. Staring at electronic displays is merely a replacement for the near work of the past, such as reading books and writing with pen on paper.
Regardless of the type of near work that is affecting our children’s vision, the solution is the same: reduce the total hours spent doing near work, take frequent breaks and spend more time outdoors.
What is myopia and why is it a concern?
A person with myopia, also known as near-sightedness, can see close objects clearly, but objects farther away are blurry. With myopia comes a greater lifelong risk of eye diseases, such as cataracts or glaucoma.
A recent study found no association between screen time and the progression of myopia. However, myopia has been on the rise in the United States and throughout the world. It affects over 40% of the U.S. population, up from 25% 40 years ago, according to the American Optometric Association. The global increase in myopia is primarily driven by the transition of many Asian countries from rural to urban societies and the steady rise in education and intense near work. The World Health Organization estimates that half of the world’s population may be myopic by 2050.
How can we slow the progression of myopia in our children?
I recommend these simple guidelines:
- Limit screen time to two hours per day.
- Spend time outdoors, at least one hour per day. Time outdoors remains the best protective measure against myopia and combating a sedentary lifestyle, which also plays a role in childhood obesity and diabetes.
- Take frequent breaks. Follow the 20-20-20 rule: Look up from the screen every 20 minutes and focus at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
- Establish healthy work and sleep habits. Use a high contrast black on white display to help with focusing. Position the top of computer monitor slightly below eye level to lessen neck strain and eye dryness from eye exposure when gazing higher up. Studies have failed to prove a benefit from blue light filters. Tints, coatings, and filters mostly address comfort. They reflect or absorb specific wavelength light which may cause glare or reflections. Amber and pink tints are sometimes prescribed to individuals whose migraines are triggered by bright lights. However, too much or too little blue light may impact our sleep cycle. It’s recommended we put away our cell phones an hour before we go to bed.
- Don’t forget to blink. Studies show that most people blink at less than half their normal rate when they stare at a screen. Blink frequently and completely to lessen dryness and blur.
How can we spot vision issues in our children?
Eye problems do not cause learning disabilities, but poor vision can negatively impact learning and development. So be on the lookout for these signs of vision problems:
- Headaches with near work
- Loss of interest with activities requiring extensive eye use
- Squinting, turning one’s head or covering one eye
As kids experience growth spurts, their eyes can also grow and elongate, which can lead to vision changes.
Eye injuries also an issue
Eye injuries are the main cause of vision loss in children and baseball is the leading cause of eye injuries in children 14 and older. Proper eye protection is highly recommended for all high-risk sports and activities. Remember that sunglasses do not provide adequate eye protection against sports-related eye injuries.
All children should have a comprehensive eye exam before starting school. Most are farsighted and may not need glasses, but significant farsightedness can lead to strabismus and amblyopia (“lazy eye”) if left uncorrected. Summer break is an excellent time to have an eye exam in preparation for the coming school year.
Lee Azpiroz is an optometrist with PeaceHealth Medical Group, University District Optometry Clinic. PeaceHealth, based in Vancouver, Wash., is a not-for-profit Catholic health system offering care to communities in Oregon, Washington and Alaska. For more ways to stay your healthiest www.peacehealth.org/healthyyou.