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Risks for Young Eyes

Screens putting teens in glasses?

It’s known that gazing at a phone or computer screen for hour on hour isn’t exactly healthy for young eyes, and now it may be getting worse.

United Kingdom-based eye care company Scrivens Opticians has a new study that reveals the percentage of youngsters 13 to 16 years old who need glasses has nearly doubled in less than a decade. It seems all that ocular stimulation has resulted in eye strain, blurred vision, and shortsightedness.

The researchers say 35 percent of those aged 13 to 16 years needed glasses in 2018, up from 20 percent in 2012. Two-thirds of those children received diagnoses of nearsightedness. In the UK, those children are spending 26 hours a week in front of an electronic screen, including televisions.

“Children’s eyes continue to grow until early adulthood – and their vision is changing, too,” Scrivens optometrist Sheena Mangat said. “Because conditions such as short- or longsightedness can happen gradually over time, neither children nor parents can see the signs, which is why regular eye checks are so important.”

The effects of screens

Children have been staring at multiple screens for at least a couple of decades. It’s culturally inescapable and practically necessary for school, work and binge-watching Netflix.

Parents admonished their kids in the 1960s and 1970s for sitting too close to the big boxy televisions of the day. But computers and cell phones have been household staples for about a generation now. Why the sudden increase in kids needing glasses since 2012?

Dr. Paul Karpecki, a nationally known optometrist and a member of the Eyesafe Vision Health Advisory Board in the US, said doctors are seeing more cases of glaucoma and retinal myopic degeneration in recent years that can likely be attributed to increased screen time.

These conditions used to occur primarily in people in their 60s, 70s and 80s.

“Now people are coming in (with these conditions) in their 30s,” Karpecki said. “It’s taken on incredible momentum the last three to five years. It’s become more critical around the country. With the number of phones and iPads out there, (kids) aren’t getting the proper development with their eyes.”

Modern tools causing damage

Today’s children, unlike most before them, engage electronic devices for most of their lives. Karpecki said young kids tend to hold screens closer to sensitive eyes. Even having shorter arms has an effect.

“As you get older, the lens in your eye becomes a filter but that’s not present in children,” he said. “That light goes right to the back of the eye.”

The American Optometric Association publishes a “Healthy Vision Using Digital Devices” fact sheet, which points out devices “pose more challenges” and have grown smaller, creating a greater strain on eyes.

Dr. Ryan Parker is an optometrist and the director of professional education at the eyewear company Essilor of America. He says researchers are still in the early stages of understanding the long-term effects of extended screen time on children.

“Blue light damages the retina,” Parker said. “It’s cumulative over time and there is a link to being indoors and myopia progression. There is a range of wavelengths of light that is damaging to the retina, which most digital devices emit. The sun is the biggest single emitter of that light.”

“The difference between now from 15 years ago is that we are exposed to higher amounts of that light indoors,” Parker noted.

The negative effects of all that light don’t stop at the eyeballs.

“Research shows heavy amounts of screen time affect sleep patterns and overall brain development,” said Linsly Donnelly, a senior vice-president of parents and consumer operations at Securly, which develops software helping parents track children’s screen time.

“The big one people care about is brain damage and our brain rewiring,” Donnelly said. “We don’t retain information as well when we are reading on a screen as when we are physically reading a book because we use different parts of the brain.”

Advice for parents

The Scrivens’ study found that 73 percent of parents surveyed said it’s a challenge to get their offspring to put away their devices for a few hours.

More than a quarter of the parents said they’ve never taken their child for an eye test.

“Parents always have a long back-to-school checklist but getting your children’s eyes tested should be a priority,” Mangat said. “We don’t think twice about taking our kids to the (general practitioner) should they become ill or the dentist for regular checks but, arguably, an annual eye health examination is just as important.”

The American Optometric Association recommends the 20-20-20 rule, which says human eyes need a 20-second break from screens every 20 minutes to look at something 20 feet away.

The organization also says users should take a 15-minute break for every two hours spent on a device.

Parents can also fight tech with tech. There’s light-filtering technology and device settings can be changed to control the amount of light bombarding sensitive eyes.

“I think we’re seeing low blue light emissions from companies like Dell,” said Karpecki. “As parents, we have to set limits. Perhaps turn down the brightening scale on devices. There’s VisionGuard (manufactured by Zagg for iPhones), which filters light. It doesn’t diminish the visual quality. We’re finally getting to a place where we understand the effects.”

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