Kids and screens are a common combination. Like most things, screens are fine in moderation, but with many schools including screens in their curriculums and even going totally virtual, kids have no choice but to be exposed for extended periods of time. While this is often a necessary exposure, it’s still an increased strain on their young eyes, and kids are feeling the effects of all this screen time.
The Impact of Screens on Young Eyes
Some of the most talked-about symptoms of screen time include tired, strained eyes, headaches, and even disrupted sleep cycles. However, one of the most concerning impacts of screen time on young eyes is the increase in cases of nearsightedness. In the last 50 years, the number of children who need glasses has nearly doubled according to Dr. David Epley, a clinical spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Dr. April Jones, a pediatric optometrist with Riley Children’s Health, believes that number to be even higher, and she and other health experts expect that as many as 25% of the world will be nearsighted by 2050.
One practitioner noticed an increase of young patients needing lenses in the 20 years she’s been practicing with the biggest increase in kids ages 4 to 12. This increase seems to be the standard worldwide, with one 2012 study finding that in parts of Asia, as many as 90% of children have nearsightedness or myopia.
Screens & Nearsightedness
One article on USA Today’s website told a story about a mother who saw this change come about a little too close to home. Kailey Welch from Indianapolis was shocked to learn that her 12-year-old son needed bifocals. While she and her husband both need prescription lenses, they didn’t need correction until much later in life. Now, 4 of her 8 children wear corrective lenses, and she was becoming concerned. Her eye doctor says that screens could be to blame.
How Screens Impact Nearsightedness
There are a few ways that digital devices can affect the eyes, specifically when it comes to myopia. One example is the proximity in which children hold devices to their faces. Because they tend to hold devices like tablets and smartphones so close to their faces, their eyes don’t need to adjust or “flex” as often to adjust to different distances. Like other muscles, when these muscles aren’t flexed for distance as often, they lose their ability to do so while they continue to build their ability to adjust to short distances.
These muscles may also tell the eyeball to grow, and while some lengthening is natural over time, it’s suspected that screen use may speed up the process. Some are skeptical of this connection, citing that children have been reading books and performing other close-up tasks for centuries with nowhere near the impact. Although all close-up tasks, including screen time and reading, can cause the eyes to strain, screens are typically held much closer to the face than books.
Another contributor to the increase in myopia may be the reduction in spending time outdoors. It’s unclear why, but natural sunlight appears to ward off the signs and symptoms of nearsightedness, and Dr. Epley explains that certain studies point to reducing the progression and development of myopia by exposing the eye to a certain spectrum of light. While this is an indirect connection to screens, kids who spend more time on screens tend to spend less time outside, giving the inclination that these two causes are indeed intertwined.
While nearsightedness isn’t the worst eye health outcome that can come about, it’s worrisome for such young people to develop it because it increases the risk of complications later in life. Some of these complications include retinal detachment, cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration. Age and genetics are still important factors in these eye health concerns, but it’s important to reduce the risk of developing any of these in any way possible.