Children’s Eye Health and Safety Month

Screen time became a critical learning tool during the pandemic, and it may have taken a toll your child’s eyes, says Christopher E. Starr, M.D.,  Associate Professor of Ophthalmology. Relegated to online learning for much of the past year, many children have felt up-close the downside of too much computer time: the headaches, blurry vision, and tired, dry, and irritated eyes of computer vision syndrome.

“When we're staring at computers, we don't blink as much,” Dr. Starr explains. “The tears evaporate, and the surface of the eye gets dry, irritated, and gritty. It can affect vision.”

Focusing on the same distance for a long time, as well as prolonged periods of reading and writing can also tire your child’s eye muscles, temporarily blur vision, and trigger headaches. “Even though kids have a robust ability to focus on little, tiny objects right in front of their eyes, they are still susceptible to eye strain and eye fatigue when they stare at devices in front of their face,” Dr. Starr says. “You see them scrunching their eyebrows and maybe squinting a little bit and rubbing their foreheads.”

In addition, too much screen time has contributed to a threefold rise in the prevalence of near-sightedness (myopia) in school-aged children, Dr. Starr says. “Pathologic myopia is on the rise in large part due to kids spending all their time indoors on computers and digital devices,” he says.

One of the strongest factors in nearsightedness is lack of natural light, Dr. Starr adds. “Light turns on dopamine, and dopamine in the eye can actually prevent the eye from elongating. If your child is not getting exposure to natural light, then she is not getting enough dopamine in her eyes,” he says. Sunlight is especially important for children younger than 12, Dr. Starr says. “Put the computer down and get outside,” he urges.

In recognition of Children’s Eye Health and Safety Month, Dr. Starr and the American Academy of Ophthalmology suggest the following simple steps for preventing eye strain, and protecting your child’s eye health.

Take breaks. Dr. Starr recommends the 20-20-20-20 rule:

  • Take a break every 20 minutes.
  • Look away and let your eye muscles relax for 20 seconds or more.
  • Look into the distance, out a window, or down a hallway at an object that's at least 20 feet away.
  • Close the eyes or blink rapidly for 20 seconds, and use eye drops to re-lubricate the surface of the eye. 

Maintain good posture.

Position the laptop or tablet at eye level, and an arm’s length--about 18 to 24 inches--away from and directly in front of your child’s body.

Reduce screen glare.

Place any lamps behind your child and don’t aim them toward the computer. Discourage your child from using a device outside or in brightly lit areas.

Minimize blue light exposure.

Decrease your child’s exposure to blue light with blue light glasses or by switching to the computer’s night mode.

Adjust screen brightness and contrast.

Don’t let your child use a device in a dark room. The pupil expands to accommodate darkness, and the screen’s brightness can irritate the eyes.

Spend time outside.

Studies suggest that spending time outdoors, especially in early childhood, can slow the progression of nearsightedness.

If your child is struggling with school or learning, squinting often, having difficulty reading fluidly, or losing her place on the page, then have a pediatric ophthalmologist or optometrist examine her eyes. And, keep in mind that most healthcare practitioners are vaccinated against COVID-19. “My office at Weill Cornell Medicine has taken every single precaution to make the environment as safe as possible, reducing the numbers of people in rooms and waiting rooms, and in the department at any given time,” Dr. Starr says. “We practice social distancing, put sanitizer everywhere, and wear double masks. If your child has a problem with her eyes, it's better to have it evaluated than wait and hope it gets better on its own.”