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What Parents Need to Know: The Effects of Screen Time on Vision

By: Caroline N. DeBenedictis, M.D.

We live in a technological world that has only increased during the Covid-19 pandemic.  Remote work schedules, distance learning, and video meetings decrease commutes but means longer hours of daily screen viewing. Whether using an iPhone, computer, or iPad, learning how to safely incorporate the increased demand of screen time into everyday life is a necessity and surprisingly easy!

What problems are caused by prolonged screen time?

  • Eye fatigue/strain: headache or irritability during or shortly after screen time, eye discomfort, eye pain or tiredness, difficulty focusing from near to distance.
  • Decreased blinking: less blinking when focusing during screen time leads to dry eyes.  This causes blurry vision, burning or itchy eyes, increased blinking, light sensitivity, tearing, or redness.
  • Increased nearsightedness (myopia): Prolonged near work of any kind can increase nearsightedness (blurry vision at distance) over time.
  • Disruption of sleep patterns: disruption of the body’s natural sleep rhythm if screens are used too close to bedtime.

How can these problems be prevented or treated?

  • Eye fatigue/stress:
    • Encourage frequent breaks.
    • Use the 20/20/20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away, for at least 20 seconds.
    • Adjust lighting so there is less glare on the computer screen.
    • Do not use the screen too close to the eyes or face.
    • Keep the screen no closer than arm’s length or two feet, and a phone should be held at 1 foot.
    • Place the screen at eye level if possible.
  • Decreased blink reflex:
    • Blink at least 20 times or take three forceful blinks while looking into the distance during the 20/20/20 break.
    • Artificial tears over the counter drops can be used up to 3-4 times per day as needed.
    • Drops that promote relief of “red eye” should not be used as they can make dry eye worse.
  • Increased nearsightedness:
    • Encourage distance vision with outdoor time.
    • Variation in daily activities
    • Keep screens a good distance from the eyes (see above).
  • Disruption of sleep patterns:
    • Limit screen time near bedtime. Turn off all screens at least 1 hour before bedtime.
    • Change screen background light to nighttime setting
    • Keep screens and devices out of the bedroom.
    • Use an actual alarm clock for waking up rather than using the phone as an alarm.

What about blue light glasses?

There is no research to support or suggest that blue light from screens damage the eyes. Blue light glasses are not harmful to the eyes but have not been shown to help with problems caused by screen time.

How can parents support healthy screen habits?

  • Set a timer for 20 minutes to encourage breaks every 20 minutes
  • Place a sticker (painters tape works great!) to mark where the computer or screen should be.
  • Create a good working environment: tables that are turned 90 degrees from the window and in good lighting
  • Model healthy habits for your children.

What if they are still having problems?

If you are following the guidelines and there are still problems, consider an eye evaluation with an eye care specialist.