This is a question that patients often ask me. Sometimes parents hint that they want me to tell their kids to stay off the computer/tablet/smartphone and others just really want to know how much is too much. The fact of the matter is this: technology is not going to go away. It is everywhere. We do want our kids to be tech savvy and take advantage of all of the great learning experiences that technology offers, don’t we? We just need to be smart about it.
Using too much technology at a near point can have several negative effects on the body and on the visual system. Kids who spend a lot of time in front of their devices, are less active physically and can have difficulty with posture. We know that childhood obesity and diabetes is on the rise. One way to combat these diseases is to keep our children active, which means less time in front of the computer.
Computer vision syndrome is not a term that only applies to adults. Symptoms such as eye fatigue, blurry vision, red eyes, headache and difficulty shifting focus to objects at a distance after computer use can also affect kids. When focusing is fixed at a certain object in space for a long time, a child’s developing visual system does not get the benefit of practicing how to focus at different distances. This can cause persistent problems with clarity of vision and possibly reading problems.
So how much is too much? A rule of thumb I usually give my patients is if school-aged children use the computer for schoolwork or for recreation, they should be on it for no more than 40 minutes without a break. By break, I mean at least 5 minutes away from the desk – getting up, looking outside, getting a drink of water and moving around. For younger kids, try no more than 20 minutes per day. In fact, keep younger kids off electronic devices as much as possible. Encourage more free play, book reading and imagination. Try to use the technology only as needed or as a reward, not as a given or expected everyday activity.
There will be plenty of time to use technology as they get older. As I said, it is not going to go away!
In the meantime, do what you can to make computer use safe. Make sure children have annual comprehensive eye examinations to make sure their eyes are not being adversely affected by computer use. Make sure the computer station is set up ergonomically for your child. The monitor should be slightly below eye level and a foot stool should be used to prevent dangling feet. Minimize glare on the computer by using glare filters and by positioning the computer away from windows as much as possible. These suggestions will help with healthy computer use for our children.
~Lisa Weiss, OD