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Will staring at a screen of any kind -- television, iPad, computer, video game -- affect your child’s vision? Maybe.
A growing number of doctors worry that too much screen time at close range could increase the risk of nearsightedness (also called myopia), which means distant objects appear blurry. The rate of myopia increased from 25 percent in 1971-72 in the United States to 41.6 percent in 1999-2004, according to a December 2009 study in the Archives of Ophthalmology. Though the study didn’t focus just on kids, it’s clear that nearsightedness is on the rise. (The rate is also increasing in several other industrialized nations.)
“The theory is -- though there’s no proof for it -- that the amount of “near work” that’s being done with computers may stimulate our nation’s young to have more nearsightedness,” says Roy S. Chuck, M.D., Ph.D., chairman of the department of ophthalmology and visual sciences at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “If you’re myopic, your world is up close. If you’re concentrating on your up-close world, you’ll have an imbalance.”
Kids will be kids -- they’ll watch TV, play video games and use their computers. Still, you can take these steps to help protect their eyes:
Don’t sit too close.
Encourage your child to stay an arm’s length away from the computer screen. “The closer, the more their eyes have to work to focus,” says optometrist Mile Brujic, a partner of Premier Vision Group in Northwest Ohio.
Remember to blink.
“Every time you work on a computer screen, you go into this stare, and your eyes get really fatigued and scratchy,” says David G. Hunter, M.D., Ph.D., ophthalmologist-in-chief at Children’s Hospital Boston and associate professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Hunter advises you to remind your kids to blink when playing games or working on the computer.
Get your kids to take a five-minute break after 20 minutes of staring at the screen. “The ideal ratio of time working vs. time breaking away is not known, and common sense should be the guide,” says Dr. Hunter. “But the structure of a fixed ratio makes it easier to follow and enforce."
Beware 3D movies.
For many people, they can cause fatigue. “There’s all this excess stimulation that’s provided when you’re watching these movies,” says Dr. Hunter. If you take off the glasses, the screen is brighter, but fuzzy. Instead, Dr. Hunter suggests turning the glasses upside down (so the earpiece is pointing above the ear) to switch the right and left eye images. “It will give you a break,” says Hunter. “It reverses the depth, so that all those hummingbirds and rocks and bubbles flying in your face drop into the background for a while.” A good tip for both you and your kids.
Limit screen time.
Even if spending some time watching TV or playing video games is okay for the eyes in the short term, it may increase the risk of nearsightedness, plus it’s bad for weight control and school performance. To teach kids to be responsible viewers and to increase their school performance, The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one to two hours of “quality TV and videos” a day for older children and no screen time for children under the age of 2. The pediatricians’ group also tells parents to keep TV sets, VCRs, video games and computers out of kids’ bedrooms.
Look for tell-tale signs of nearsightedness -- or farsightedness.
Symptoms such as squinting, watery eyes, eye pain, unexplained headaches after reading and unusual tilting or turning of the head indicate a problem. Visit your doctor for an eye exam.
Visit an eye doctor.
Some ophthalmologists recommend that every child get an initial eye exam at about age 2 1/2, even if his vision seems perfect. “We can tell at that age who is myopic or likely to be so, whether the vision is symmetrically good, and whether there is an unrecognized eye muscle imbalance or visual inequity, such as one nearsighted eye and one farsighted eye,” says Michael Rosenberg, M.D., associate professor of ophthalmology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.
When it comes to your kids’ vision, it pays to play it on the safe side. Limiting their total screen time and encouraging breaks while they use computers and other devices can protect their eyesight in the long term.
How do you limit your child's screen time? Chime in below!