By Dr Samir El-Mulki, Ophthalmic Surgeon

With the uncertainty that the COVID-19 pandemic brings, schools are adopting contingency plans that utilise virtual online learning, as parents prepare for a possible scenario of distance education once again. Read on to learn how you can care for your child’s eyes when spending excessive time in front of screens.

Students in Jordan and the world at large have recently spent three months of long hours on their mobile phones and laptops for online classes, owing to the current COVID-19 pandemic. The increase in the use of electronic gadgets by children is causing a significant threat of digital eye strain.

Symptoms of digital eye strain

Digital eye strain is one of the most common problems related to the excessive use of digital gadgets. Symptoms include:

 
Tearing, frequent blinking and eye rubbing

 
Dryness of the eyes

 
Headaches

 
Generalised tiredness

The harmful effects of blue light

The blue light emitted from lit screens suppresses the hormone melatonin, which maintains our body’s internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Prolonged exposure to blue light, especially before their bedtime, can cause sleep disturbances in children. Too much screen time can also result in dry eye, headaches, stress, anxiety, behavioural and mental health issues.

Screen time additions

Digital eye strain, also known as computer vision syndrome, can affect anyone who uses computers, smartphones, tablets, and gaming systems excessively. Increased screen time increases the risk of myopia (a common vision condition in which you can see objects near to you clearly, but objects farther away are blurry). Myopia progression can cause stress, anxiety, loss of social skills and other behavioural issues. I highly recommend that the amount of time a child spends using digital devices to be age-appropriate and a child be given a break every 30 minutes.

Why prolonged screen time is not suitable for children

1. Increases the risk of myopia and myopia progression

2. Causes stress, anxiety, loss of social skills and other behavioural issues

3. Disturbs regular sleep pattern

Best practices for safe online learning

1. Ensuring proper ventilation in the room

2. Avoiding sitting for long hours directly in front of a fan or an air conditioning unit as it can cause the eyes to dry up quickly

3. Encouraging students and children to blink frequently

I recommend that the duration of online classes must be age-appropriate. For younger children, such as four to six-year-olds, the length of the class should be one hour and include one break. Older children may have lessons for up to four to six hours, with five to six breaks.   

More tips for online learning

1. Body posture

The importance of a child’s posture during online classes is especially paramount. You can encourage the following:

 
Sitting on a straight-backed chair with armrests

 
Placing the screen about 60 cm from the child at eye level to ensure proper posture and avoid back and neck problems

 
Investing in larger screens

2. Room lighting

A sufficiently illuminated room is essential. Blue light emitted from screens may be harmful to the most sensitive part of the retina called the macula. In a dark place, the pupils are dilated, exposing the eye to the detrimental effects of blue light without the protection of the pupil.

3. Scheduling online classes

In addition to getting short breaks every 30 minutes, I recommend scheduling online classes in the morning and afternoon hours only to ensure that children do not use screens in the evening and at night.

4. Promoting wearing of glasses

Children who wear eyeglasses must wear them at all times during classes. Ensure that your child uses lubricating eye drops in case of prolonged screen usage, which is, of course, not recommended.