As the world continues to combat the coronavirus, many schools have pivoted to remote learning. Some experts fear this increased “screen time,” paired with a lack of in-school eye exams, could worsen vision in some children.
Many school districts offer yearly vision screenings conducted by school nurses. Any child who doesn’t pass the screening is advised to seek vision care from an eye doctor. But most children who attend school via remote learning this year won’t receive these in-school eye exams. “Parents should definitely make sure their child’s eyes are getting evaluated, so that if there is a problem, it can be addressed before it causes any learning difficulties,” said Kammi Gunton, MD, a pediatric ophthalmologist at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia.
Some districts, like Williamsport, Pa., have set up clinics to provide local children with eye screenings during a time when many kids are attending school remotely. Parents should see what free resources are available in their area, Dr. Gunton said, or make sure their child’s eyes are checked by their pediatrician or eye care provider.
Are Screens Making Things Worse?
Screens are built into the very fabric of remote learning. Students must rely on computers, electronic tablets and cell phones to attend classes and complete schoolwork. Thankfully, Dr. Gunton said, “There is no scientific evidence that online learning or being on the computer is going to harm the eyes.” What children might experience during remote schooling is eyestrain, not eye damage.
“We’re all new to this degree of online learning, and there can be a little bit more eyestrain when a child is working mostly at a computer,” Dr. Gunton said. “We need to be sure that we’re listening to our kids and watching their behaviors to see if we notice when they’re having trouble.”
Signs to Watch For
If a child is blinking more often than usual, feeling fatigued, rubbing the eyes or complaining of headaches, he or she might be experiencing eyestrain. “And certainly, if a child says that the words are blurry on the computer screen or that they’re not able to complete their work because they can’t see well enough, those would be obvious red flags,” Dr. Gunton said.
Parents can help reduce eyestrain in their children by adjusting the brightness of the screen so it is comfortable to view, according to Dr. Gunton, and by making sure the child’s work station has good lighting — a child should never be sitting in the dark at the computer.
Dr. Gunton said she doesn’t recommend blue light glasses, which work by filtering the blue light emitted by computer and phone screens. Blue light is brighter than other types of light and thought by some to disrupt sleep cycles and contribute to eyestrain.
“Blue light glasses really haven’t been shown to be helpful or preventative of eye diseases,” she said. Instead, Dr. Gunton provides some of her patients with computer glasses. “They are glasses that have a little bit of a magnification in them so that near distance viewing doesn’t require as much focusing demand from the kids,” she said. “For some kids, it really helps.”
Some of her pediatric patients have experienced issues with the alignment of their pupils. Dr. Gunton said she adjusts those children’s glasses to help keep their eyes aligned when they’re on the computer.
“It’s very specific to particular needs, though,” she said. “It’s not for everyone.”
Dr. Gunton said parents should discuss their child’s specific situation with an eye care provider.
“Don’t just go and do a routine eye exam if you’ve noticed any issues,” she said. “Really address the situation with them. Say, for example, ‘We’re on the computer for five hours a day. Here are some symptoms I’ve noticed. Are there things that would be specifically helpful for my child?’”
Sydney is an award-winning writer, editor and digital producer. She lives in New Jersey with her cat Oliver.