Throughout the pandemic, pediatric ophthalmologists at the University of Maryland have seen firsthand how greater exposure to screens can affect kids’ eyesight. With everyday activities going virtual—from playdates and schooling to visits with grandparents and birthday celebrations—children are now in front of a screen more than ever. For parents, understanding how to better protect their vision can be difficult, especially with a plethora of information online. We talked with Roni Levin, MD, assistant professor of ophthalmology and pediatrics, who broke down the myths and facts about the safest screen-time practices for kids.
How does increased screen time affect children’s vision?
Every time you blink, you refresh the surface of the cornea. A normal amount of blinking is 15 to 20 blinks per minute, but when we stare at a screen, it’s half as much. The lack of blinking can cause our eyes to become blurred, tired, and make it difficult to focus and read.
What are the risk factors of too much screen time?
In addition to blurred vision, tired eyes, and difficulty focusing, too much screen time can also put children at greater risk of developing ADHD, obesity, eyestrain, and myopia (nearsightedness).
What can parents do to ensure safe screen-time practices?
Follow the 20/20/20 rule: For every 20 minutes of screen time, take a 20 second break and look 20 feet away. Encourage your child to blink at the end of every punctuation in order to create a habit. When your eyes feel tired or dry, use lubricating artificial tears to refresh them, but be sure to avoid drops that “remove redness.”
The screen should be at eye level so your child isn’t straining or bending their neck, and it should also be an arm’s length away. You want the ambient light in the room to match the brightness of the screen—you don’t want to be on a screen in the dark.
How effective are blue light glasses?
Blue light is not harmful to eyes. There’s no scientific evidence in terms of blue light and learning or blue light and eye-strain reduction. Our eyes can filter most of the blue light using parts of the eye such as the cornea, lens, and parts of the retina. There is far more blue light from sunlight than from a screen and it’s beneficial to get outside during the day to help boost your mood and attention. However, there is evidence that blue light can affect sleep and be disruptive at night. Reducing the blue light component in your screen or avoiding screens before you and your child go to sleep will help with relaxation.
What are other constructive activities that kids can be engaged in to give their eyes a break? And how do you police it?
You want to limit your child’s screen time for less pressing things, like a Zoom call with grandparents. Your child should get outdoors and play in the sun. Science shows that natural light, sun exposure, and outdoor play reduces the progression of nearsightedness. Make sure to take breaks and go outside.
Is there anything else parents should know about eye health during the pandemic?
Recently a lot of patients (both children and adults) are coming in with symptoms of dry eye. We actually found that our masks are blowing air onto the surface of the cornea, causing dry eye due to an evaporation of tears. I do recommend still wearing a mask, washing your hands, and social distancing, however, make sure your mask has a good seal on the nose so you aren’t blowing air up onto the eye. You can also consider blinking more and using artificial tears to reduce dry-related eye strain from mask use.
MEET THE EXPERT
Roni Levin, MD
Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology and Pediatrics, University of Maryland School of Medicine
Pediatric Ophthalmologist, University of Maryland Eye Associates