To be totally honest, we’re pretty sure kids can operate tablets, smartphones, and laptops better — and much, much faster — than we ever could. In our defense, they’ve been practicing: On average, children ages 8 to 12 in the United States spend between four to six hours a day watching or using screens, while those ages 12 to 13 are glued to screens for nearly eight hours per day.
While it’s not like adults don’t have their own issues with excessive screen time (that’s a conversation for another day), for kids, extra hours spent in the digital space can be potentially harmful. Not only is increased screen time associated with sedentary behavior and less restful sleep, but it can also be damaging to a child’s vision.
We’ve partnered with the American Optometric Association (AOA) to break down exactly what excessive screen time is doing to your kid’s eyes — so you know exactly how to improve your child’s relationship with screens and protect their eye health in the long run.
Screens May Cause Digital Eye Strain
Although the small size and compactness of devices have been overall super convenient, they can cause problems for your eyes. Digital eye strain, also referred to as Computer Vision Syndrome, describes a group of eye- and vision-related problems that result from prolonged use of digital devices, such as computers, tablets, e-readers, and cell phones.
“When we’re focusing on a screen, we are focusing at the same distance for an extended period of time. This prolonged sedentary focus can cause the eyes to ‘spasm,’” says Dr. Jason Compton, O.D., founder of Compton Eye Associates and AOA doctor. “Excessive screen time requires the eyes to work harder up close, and this ‘heavy lifting’ can lead to headaches, double vision, and may even affect a child’s concentration.” On top of that, Compton says blink rate tends to decrease heavily when we spend time staring at screens, which can result in issues like dry eyes and blurred vision. (Any uncorrected eye errors, like being far-sighted in one or both eyes, will also be exacerbated with digital device use, especially when used up close, like handheld tablets and gaming systems.)
As screen use gets more and more excessive, this can be problematic, especially for a developing child’s eyes. Even if your kid keeps their eyes glued to bigger devices, whether they’re watching TV or playing video games, they’re still at risk for eye strain from the glare emitted from backlighting of digital devices — not to mention the intense focus required for gamers to pass their next and hardest level! In fact, according to a 2022 survey by the AOA, the average gamer spends more than eight hours a day on screens and 88% of gamers have experienced various eye-related symptoms from it.
All this to say: Compton recommends parents help children understand the importance of taking screen breaks and using tools like the 20-20-20 rule, which involves taking a 20-second screen hiatus to look at something at least 20 feet away — you guessed it — every 20 minutes. “I would never want to shame or discourage a child from spending their screen time doing something they may love, like gaming, but it’s important to always encourage them to do outdoor activities as much as possible,” says Compton. “We live in a highly digital world and the best thing to encourage is to have a balance.”
Digital Devices May Contribute to Rise of Myopia In Kids
Putting the social, physical, and neurological effects of excessive screen time aside, Compton’s biggest concern when it comes to digital devices is the increased risk of myopia. What is myopia, exactly? “Myopia, also called nearsightedness, is when your eyes can’t focus well on far objects,” explains Compton.
“When we spend excessive amounts of time focusing up close, it is a signal to our eyes to grow longer [and] this lengthening is what increases myopia. If we can limit these signals then we can potentially limit the development of myopia in a child while their eyes are still developing.”
Compton points out that myopia is more likely to happen to a child who is actively growing, and typically plateaus later on in life. “There is a critical period in a child’s development, where the brain is still learning how to work with the eyes,” he explains. “Prolonged screen time can put extra strain on a system that’s still developing and has the potential for long-term effects.” Research shows that those with myopia have an increased risk of developing severe complications such as glaucoma, cataracts, retinal detachment, and macular degeneration.
Myopia is on the rise, too. A 2020 study found an increase in the prevalence of myopia in school-aged children compared to earlier years. And since many children had recently been attending virtual classrooms due to the pandemic, it’s easy to speculate that increased screen time contributed to this trend. However, more research needs to be done to fully investigate the relationship between screen time and myopia. That’s why AOA recommends children receive regular comprehensive eye exams with a doctor of optometry to ensure any signs of myopia are caught early.
Blue Light From Devices Can Mess With Your Child’s Circadian Rhythm
While there’s been much debate on this topic, the good news is there is not enough scientific evidence to support that the blue light emitted from your child’s personal electronic device is bright enough to damage their retina.
Though it’s not enough to scorch our eyeballs, that pesky blue light is bright enough to stimulate blue-light-sensitive ganglion cell photoreceptors that regulate circadian rhythms, or the natural cycle that’s responsible for sleep. Using screens before bedtime can seriously mess with your child’s sleep, making it harder for them to fall asleep and get quality rest. It can also impair their alertness the following day.
Compton recommends children retire their devices and avoid screen time at least one hour before bedtime.
Prolonged time spent on screens can have a long-term impact on your child's eye health. While there are many things you can do to prevent digital eye strain, seeing a doctor of optometry for a comprehensive eye exam is crucial to maintaining your child's eye health.
So, before your kids head back to school this fall, make sure their eyes are healthy from all the screen time they've had this summer. To find a doctor near you, check out AOA’s doctor locator.