More kids show eye strain from digital devices, optometrist warns parents

A Calgary optometrist says she's seeing more cases of digital eye strain among kids and, as they head back to school, now is the best time to get that problem sorted out.

Majority of parents in Alberta don't encourage children to take eye break, optometrist says

Spending too much time staring at screens is having an impact on young eyes. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

A Calgary optometrist says she's seeing more cases of digital eye strain among kids and, as they head back to school, now is the best time to get that problem sorted out.

"We're seeing it more for them than we have in the past," said Andrea Lasby. 

"So where it used to be primarily a millennial — 20-, 30-, 40-year-old problem — we're kind of seeing it intergenerational at this point, including children."

The root cause could be parents who don't understand the effects on children.

Not taking breaks

An online survey commissioned by the Alberta Association of Optometrists (AAO) revealed that 59 per cent of parents in the province "are not aware of or do not encourage their children to take steps during or after using digital devices to reduce the impact on their eyes."

"Digital eye strain is the discomfort experienced after screen use for more than two hours at a time," Dr. Jim Asuchak, practicing optometrist and president of the AAO, said in a news release on the study.  

"Alberta children are, on average, spending at least double that amount of time on digital devices, and we are seeing the results in our exam chairs."

Kavan Shergill, 8, sitting for an exam with Lasby, said his eyes have been dry and itchy lately and that he gets headaches, especially after spending time on his iPad. 

"I'm trying to not go on it, but like, I can't," he said. "It's hard." 

Eye irritation and blurriness can impair learning

According to Lasby, Shergill's symptoms are all early signs of digital eye strain.

She says the long-term impacts are not yet known because it's such a new phenomenon, but the irritation and blurriness can impact learning in the classroom.

"Children oftentimes don't know what they're feeling is inappropriate or that it's not normal, so they don't complain. They just think blurriness, that's normal," said Lasby.

"Or perhaps they say 'I'm reading, it's blurry, I don't feel like doing this anymore,' and now they're hyperactive and they move around a lot, so sometimes that hyperactivity is a misdiagnosis and it can be an eye problem."

How to avoid eye strain

Parents can also encourage children to take preventative measures at home and at school to reduce the risk of digital eye strain, including:

  • Take regular breaks.
  • Follow the 20-20-20 rule by looking 20 feet away every 20 minutes for 20 seconds.
  • Don't hold screens too close, especially for long periods of time.
  • Eliminate screen glare by reducing overhead lighting.
  • Position computers slightly below eye level and at arm's length.
  • Increase text size on digital devices.
  • Adjust screen brightness.

Teens spend almost 8 hours daily on digital devices

According to the AAO survey, Alberta parents said elementary school-age children spend more than four hours each day using digital devices at home and at school. For teenagers, that number increases to nearly eight hours each day. 

Lasby says symptoms can be treated with eye drops, special eye glasses and blinking exercises. She said there are also apps that can adjust the colour temperature of screens to reduce the impact.

The AAO's survey was conducted online through the polling firm Angus Reid from July 13 to July 18 among 506 Albertans with children under the age of 18.

For comparison purposes only, a random sample of this size would yield a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

With files from Colleen Underwood