How much screen time does your child get in a day? Is it less than an hour, or maybe more? According to the latest screen time guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, children below 2 years old should not get any screen time at all, and children up to 5 years old should only be allowed a maximum of 1 hour.
The recommendations come alongside a growing body of research on the effects of too much gadget use in kids including sleeping problems, behavioral issues and even speech delay in tots. But there's another question we should ask: What are all the screens doing to our kids’ eyesight?
Parents may already be aware of the effects of even a few hours of gadget use can have on a child’s eyes. Prolonged screen time, termed as digital eyestrain, can cause burning, itchy or tired eyes, according to Healthline. Not only that, blurred or double vision, head and neck pain, and headaches are also common. But these don’t usually last long.
“The short-term effect of digital eyestrain is not cumulative,” said Dr. Tina McCarty, an optometrist and a member of the American Optometric Association. “The eyes will get better when you give them a break,” she added.
Digital eyestrain is definitely a sign that your child should put down the gadget already or at least set it aside for a while to rest his eyes. And, if your child is using a gadget for an hour or more, doctors recommend the “20-20-20” rule to reduce digital eyestrain. After every 20 minutes, your child should look away from the screen and look at a distant object 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds.
You should also try to see if your child is blinking enough. Yes, it may seem odd but screens can make their users blink less often, said optometrist Dr. Gary Heiting in an article for All About Vision. “Blinking moistens your eyes to prevent dryness and irritation.”
More than eyestrain, does looking at a bright electronic device for extended periods cause long-term damage to a child’s vision? Researchers are yet to be certain, but there may be cause for worry when it comes to the high-energy, blue light coming from screens and gadgets.
Blue light is similar to ultraviolet (UV) light in wavelength, explained Dr. McCarty. Emitted by the sun, UV light in high amounts has been shown to have damaging effects on the eyes and vision. Minor effects include cosmetic blemishes on the surface of the eye but serious UV light exposure can cause cancer and blindness. “WHO estimates suggest that up to 20 percent of cataracts may be caused by overexposure to UV radiation,” said the World Health Organization (WHO). Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness in the world.
Though less is known about the effects of blue light, concerns aren’t neglected. “Blue light is concerning because the cornea and the lens don’t filter it out, so it goes right to the back of the eye,” Dr. Anam Qureshi, a clinical assistant professor of ophthalmology at NYU Langone Medical Center, told Health.com.
In a 2016 study, published in the journal Eye, researchers tested to the toxicity of the blue light emitted by gadgets and light bulbs. They used a white screen at the maximum brightness setting for their measurements. “Even under extreme long-term viewing conditions, none of the low energy light bulbs, computers, tablets and mobile phones we assessed suggested cause for concern for public health,” lead author John O’Hagantold Reuters.
That’s good news for working moms and dads. Researchers caution, however, that their study may not apply to children as light transmission to the retina is age-related. Meaning, children may be more sensitive to blue light as their eyes are still developing. “Light sources that are comfortable for adults could be distressing for children, the authors warn,” reported Reuters.
Moreover, blue light during night time can disrupt a child's sleep. It affects the body's melatonin levels, which increase alertness and reset's the body's internal clock to a later schedule, according to the U.S. National Sleep Foundation. “The end result: sleep-deprived or poorly rested kids who have essentially given themselves a mini case of jet lag,” said the group which recommended powering down electronics an hour or two before bedtime.
So what’s a parent to do? It’s always better to be safe and cautious especially when it comes to your child's health. Impose rules to limit your child’s screen time. Find the full updated recommendations for gadget use in kids here. Plus, remember that check-ups with your child’s doctor should include an annual eye exam, said Dr. McCarty.