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Back to School: Tips for Managing Kids’ Screen Time

August 24, 2020 | By Dr. Debi Sarma

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With children heading back to school in this new world where more screen time is the norm, it’s no wonder so many parents and guardians have shared concerns about their children’s vision and eye health. As an optometrist and a mom, (a mom-tometrist!) I’d like to share a few tips and tricks to keep your child's eyes healthy as we navigate online learning and recreational screen time. 

In this two-part “Back to School” series, I’ll be breaking down some steps you can take, both during the school day and after the “school bell” rings, to protect your kids’ eyes and help keep them focused and productive throughout their day. 

First, let’s talk about how screens affect our eyes and how you can switch things up at home, even as school time relies more and more on electronic devices.

How Does Screen Time Affect the Eyes? 

For decades, we’ve heard “don’t sit so close to the screen, it will ruin your eyes.” In early generations it was TVs, and nowadays screens are almost unavoidable. They’ve become an essential part of our lives, and are an integral part of your child’s learning environment and social interactions.  

But the truth is that our eyes are not equipped to deal with constant screen time. They haven’t evolved quickly enough to cope with the rapid evolution of the technology around us.  Our eyes are still made to look in the distance - at birds, trees, and animals - not up close at bright screens for hours. So it’s not surprising that constant screen time can feel tiring - our eyes just can’t keep up!

Screen time can increase the strain on the eyes for many people, including children, which can hinder the quality of vision.  This eye strain can lead to symptoms including eye fatigue, headaches, double vision, dry eyes, neck and shoulder pain, reduced sleep, red eyes, itchy eyes, tearing, eye discomfort, and difficulty focusing. 

While common in adults with office/desk jobs, children can also be affected by excessive screen time. Children whose eyes are still developing may experience difficulty at the computer if their eye muscles are weaker, resulting in symptoms such as double or blurred vision, or trouble focusing. We also know that viewing a screen within arms length for long periods of time can increase a child’s risk for nearsightedness (or myopia), resulting in a need for glasses to see at distance.

Screen time doesn’t just affect the eyes. In a study by Twenge and Campbell (2018), it was shown that screen time in adolescents can have a negative impact on sleep, sociability, mental wellness, and curiosity. This is even more reason why we need to find ways to give our kids a break from screen time when possible. 

Supplement Kids' eLearning With Hands-on Activity

With the new school year looking like there may be more computer use than ever, it may be hard to fully break free from screens. Luckily, there are some things that can be done to modify or supplement online learning sessions to help improve your child’s engagement while relieving their eyes. Here are a few ideas:  

  • Print out PDFs of lectures and homework sheets and take notes with a pen and paper instead. 
  • For lessons done without a need for visual display, consider turning the screen away, closing eyes and listening to the details instead. 
  • Use paper sheet music during music lessons. 
  • Find projects at home to learn science – build your own garden to study plant biology, build a model plane to understand physics/engineering, etc.
  • Explore books with maps, pictures, or art as supplementary material. 
  • Take time for hands-on arts and crafts at home, instead of using digital apps and programs.
  • Connect the computer to a larger screen TV, so that kids can sit further away and feel like they are in a more classroom environment while reducing the visual strain of small screen use. 

There are also setting changes that you can implement on your screens to adapt the view and minimize visual strain. Some of these include:

  • Reduce screen brightness and change the display temperature to warmer, more yellowed tones. This can reduce the emission of blue light that causes eye strain. 
  • Invert the colors so the white screen turns dark in the evening to add comfort for night viewing, especially if kids are gaming or messaging friends in the evening.
  • Increase the magnification to allow for easy reading, which can also reduce the risk of headaches at the end of the day. 
  • Reduce glare by moving external sources of light away from the screen.
  • Ensure that children have the right vision correction, and are wearing any glasses prescribed for reading/computer use so that they are seeing their best.
  • Ensure proper posture when possible - seated with feet flat on the ground, back up straight and square with the screen, head upright, shoulders down - to keep their developing bodies in their best wellness. 
  • Encourage children to keep screens an arm’s length away from the eyes

Most importantly, encourage kids to take plenty of breaks and exercise their eyes by looking into the distance. A good rule of thumb is for every 20 minutes of screen time, they should spend 20 seconds looking away (more than 20 ft away!) and blinking. This is known as the 20-20-20 rule. Make it fun for the kids with stretches (neck, arms, legs, body) with a dance or song to get them up and moving.

Implementing some of these changes can have a major impact on your child’s focus, productivity, and energy throughout the long days of online learning. There are also a number of things you can do once the school day is over to keep their eyes feeling healthy, but more on that next week!

Not sure where to start with off-screen learning? Check out some 2020 On-site printable worksheets for younger kids to complete at home!

Download Worksheets

About Dr. Debi Sarma

Dr. Debi Sarma is a residency-trained optometrist who has built a career around vision health education, and is passionate about improving access to vision care for those in need. Dr. Sarma has a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Waterloo, as well as a Doctorate degree from the New England College of Optometry. She is a seasoned lecturer on disease topics and loves connecting with people to talk about innovation, culture, and leadership in healthcare.

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