Digital device breaks advised

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As the back to school season looms on the horizon, the Alberta Association of Optometrists (AAO) is urging parents to talk to their children about the effects of digital eyestrain.

Results from a survey revealed 59 per cent of Alberta parents do not know about digital eyestrain and do not encourage their children to take regular breaks from looking at a digital device.

“I think a lot of kids don’t know what blackboards are anymore,” Dr. Jared Long, an optometrist with Airdrie Eyecare Centre, said. “We’re certainly in an era of SMART boards and with most kids having a device at their workstation desk.”

After looking at a device for more than two hours, children can experience digital eyestrain symptoms such as headaches, irritability, blurred vision and dry eyes.

“In our daily clinical practices, we often see these types of issues,” Long said. “It’s always interesting when we have some of these global numbers that really speak to how significant they are.”

“These numbers are definitely informative and for the parents to understand how significant these problems really are on a global level.”

While the issue of digital eyestrain is widespread across the globe, the AAO survey compiled results from 506 Albertans with children aged 18 or under from July 13 to 18.

Elementary school students spend more than four hours a day using digital devices. That number climbs as children get older, rising to more than eight hours a day with teenagers.

“For me, what’s surprising is seeing the pervasiveness and the young age devices are being used,” Long said. “I’ve got an almost two-year-old child at home myself. I’m certainly aware of some of the screen time issues that are already there at two.”

However, only 28 per cent of surveyed parents said their child experiences digital eyestrain symptoms after using a digital device, but this could mean children are not expressing what’s bothering them.

“Kids don’t often tell us when they’re having troubles or they tell us in ways we might not always expect,” Long said. “Sometimes it will manifest in headaches or avoiding reading because it’s straining.”

To avoid digital eyestrain symptoms, Long recommends taking frequent breaks between extended sessions of using a digital device. In addition to correctly positioning the screen, the 20-20-20 rule is one way to take a quick break by staring at something 20 feet away every 20 minutes for 20 seconds.

“(The 20-20-20 rule) is an easy reminder to take a break from looking at a device that close,” Long said. “When you see those bent elbows, that’s a sign to ask the child to push the screen out further. It reduces how much focusing power they have to exert.”

If a child needs to position the digital device close, it may indicate they are having troubles seeing. Long said children are especially sensitive to vision changes as they are still developing and growing, so frequent check ups with an optometrist are recommended.

“Certainly as we go back to school, this is an opportunity to be proactive with these types of things, looking at a comprehensive eye exam to deal with these problems before they start impacting school performance,” Long said.

The AAO recommends at least one comprehensive eye exam yearly once they start school.

“Alberta Health Care does cover not only annual eye exams to a comprehensive review, but they also cover specific stuff throughout the year,” Long said.

Digital eyestrain boils down to the blue light omitted by digital devices. Blue light disrupts sleep cycles, affecting student performance as a result, so avoiding digital devices before bedtime is recommended.

“There are some specific filters coming out to help reduce exposure to blue light,” Long said. “Some of the Apple devices have the night shift mode that you can turn on. Everything goes a little bit yellow and what it’s doing is it’s dialling back the blue light being projected.”

While more research needs to be done to fully understand how blue light affects both children and adults, taking breaks from digital devices is a necessary preventative measure.

“Being proactive in how we use our eyes while using digital devices will reduce some of these long term concerns that we don’t even know about right now,” Long said.

Alberta Health covers annual eye exams for children up to age 19.

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