HEALTH PLUS MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT
August is Children’s Eye Health and Safety Awareness Month
One in four children has an undiagnosed vision disorder according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). Despite the unsettling statistics, 76 percent have not received a comprehensive eye exam at the appropriate time. Research from AAO also states that “lack of early intervention can have debilitating consequences”. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented further challenges, deterring parents from pursuing routine screening and navigating their children’s digital health, as classrooms have moved to the virtual environment.
This brings into focus, Children’s Eye Health and Safety Awareness Month, commemorated in August, aimed to educate parents on protecting their child’s eyesight and preventing the development of vision threatening disorders.
Children should have an eye exam at six months and this must be repeated at age three. Prior to starting elementary school, a comprehensive eye exam is recommended. Thereafter, eye exams become necessary if your child experiences vision problems. Our current teaching environment, using virtual classrooms have also increased the complaints of Digital eye strain.
The following signs and symptoms warrant concern and vision screening:
• Wandering eyes
• Dry eyes
• Blurry Vision
• Squinting; closing one eye to read or watch TV
• Holding the book too close to one’s eyes or often sitting close to the TV or screen
• Frequent eye rubbing when one is trying to concentrate
• Consistently using one’s fingers to guide when reading
• Excessive tearing without any tear-causing stimuli.
• Sensitivity to light, which is sometimes accompanied by headache or nausea.
A good rule of thumb is to have your children’s eyes examined during “well-child” visits. Your child’s ophthalmologist can help detect refractive errors such as nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism as well as the following commonly detected diseases:
• Amblyopia (lazy eye)
• Strabismus (crossed eyes)
• Ptosis (drooping of the eyelid)
• Colour deficiency (colour blindness)
DIGITAL EYE STRAIN
This isn’t a single eye condition, like glaucoma or pink eye. It is the name for the symptoms (similar to those listed above) that adults and children experience when they spend too long looking at a screen. There are many reasons for parents to be mindful on the extent of screen time they allow their children. Amount of screen use per day has been associated with reduced developmental outcomes, obesity, poor sleep quality and regressed eye development.
The World Health Organization’s 2019 guidelines suggest no screen time at all for children before age one, and very limited screen time for children for several years after that. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no digital media use in children younger than 18 months and focuses on educational media when children can start using screens with parental guidance. Research from Canada has also found that preschoolers who had more than two hours of screen time per day had a nearly eight-fold increase in Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Applying the 20-20-20 Rule
The easiest way to avoid digital eye strain or eye strain from any extended near-focus task like reading is to make sure to blink often and to look up from your screen or close-up work every 20 minutes and focus at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This strategy of frequent re-focusing (commonly referred to as the 20-20-20 rule) lets the eyes relax and reset.
Eye Comfort and Safety Tips for Adults, Children and Screens
The best way to deal with possible effects of screens on children’s vision is to help them set good habits for use. These same tips are good practices for adults and anyone suffering from chronic dry eyes or eye strain.
• Follow the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, look at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
• Set a timer to remind the child how often to look into the distance.
• Alternate reading an e-book with a real book and encourage children to look up and out the window every other chapter.
• After completing a level in a video game, look out the window for 20 seconds.
• Pre-mark books with a paperclip every few chapters to remind your child to look up. On an e-book, use the “bookmark” function for the same effect.
• Avoid using screens outside or in brightly lit areas, where the glare on the screen can create strain.
• Adjust the brightness and contrast of the screen so that it feels comfortable.
• Use good posture when using a screen. Poor posture can contribute to muscle tightness and headaches associated with eye strain.
• Encourage your child to hold digital media farther away: 18 to 24 inches is ideal.
• Remind them to blink when watching a screen.
Co-watch whenever possible
If children are going to have screen time, the best thing you can do is to watch the show or game with them to help them understand what they’re seeing. Comment on things you notice, ask questions about what is happening and if someone on a show is singing a song, sing along with your child. Engage with them and repeat concepts after the show is over so they are more likely to retain that information.
Choose media wisely
Look to parenting groups for reviews about age-appropriate apps, games and programs to guide you in making the best choices for your children.
Limit your own phone use
Balancing online and offline time is extremely important. Children will do what they see their parents doing. At a young age, parent(s) is/are the most important person(s) in their life, so they will model whatever behaviour they are seeing. If they see that you are behind a screen all day every day, then they will see that it’s acceptable and will want to do the same.
Emphasize the big three: sleep, healthy nutrition and exercise
All three are essential to optimal brain growth, overall development and health and wellness for children and adults alike. Excessive screen time can impact all three. Children who spend more time in front of screens have been shown to eat more fast food and less fruits and vegetables and get less sleep and exercise. Therefore, it is particularly important to incorporate healthy lifestyle choices as part of the daily routine, as well as balanced screen time to achieve optimal eye health.