Screen time versus green time: Looking after your kids’ eyes during COVID-19

Photo by Patricia Prudente on Unsplash

With lockdown restrictions across the country, parents working from home and many schools keeping their doors closed for term two, the challenge of managing kids’ screen time is currently more difficult than ever before.

As uncovered in Optometry Australia’s 2020 Vision Index Report, 44 per cent of Australian parents aged between 18 and 34 are worried about the effects of screen time on their children's eyesight; whilst almost three-quarters of Australians believe that too much screen time can damage your vision.

Myopia – or shortsightedness – is growing rapidly among children and is forecast to reach epidemic proportions with half the world’s population predicted to be affected by 2050. Alarmingly, by this date one billion people are predicted to have high myopia (which comes with increased risk of permanent blindness from retinal detachment, glaucoma, cataracts and myopic maculopathy). Exacerbating this problem is the amount of time kids are spending in front of screens, which is reducing their time spent outside.

While screen time is a given, particularly now while kids are learning and isolating at home,  Optometry Australia is encouraging parents to try to ensure their children are getting the right balance of screen time and ‘green time’.

Ground-breaking Australian research released in 2016 revealed that increasing exposure to outdoor light is a key factor in reducing the onset of myopia in children, while a more recent Chinese study showed that outdoor exercise can slow the progression of myopia.

As a father of two young children and also working from home during COVID-19 restrictions, Luke Arundel, Optometry Australia's Chief Clinical Officer, says he is very familiar with ‘Netflix nanny’ and the challenges parents face at the moment in trying to limit kids’ screen time. “This is an unprecedented period with unique challenges, and we need to be realistic about our COVID screen time limits for our kids.”

One of the organisations often cited in screen time guidelines, the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) has previously suggested a limit of one hour per day for children aged 2 to 5 years.  This is in line with advice from the Australian Department of Health, which also adds the suggestion that children aged 5-17 should have no more than 2 hours screen time per day.

The AAP has now released new guidelines which avoid time based limits in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the comment that "while limits are still important, under these stressful circumstances, kids' screen media use will likely increase." There is an emphasis now on being selective about content, using media for connection and planning structure and screen free breaks during the day.

“As an optometrist, it’s trying to get my kids to avoid prolonged periods of screen use, making sure they aren’t holding the screens too close and trying to make sure we get outside every day,” Luke said.

“While these are most certainly the goals, this is a stressful period, so I think it’s also important not to be too hard on yourself as a parent, but to keep your kids’ future visual welfare in mind as we all get through this period together”.

Luke suggests giving the eyes regular breaks using the ‘20/20/20 rule’ – after every 20 minutes of screen time, shift your eyes to look at an object around 20 metres away, for at least 20 seconds. The ideal addition to this practice would be to take regular breaks throughout the day by getting outside and going for a stroll.

Ideally, children should be spending more than an hour (and preferably at least two hours) a day outside to help protect their eyesight. Whether it be outdoor lessons or during lunch, children should be breaking up their time inside and on screens with (sun safe) time outdoors to help prevent myopia.

Ideally, children should be spending more than an hour a day outside. Photo by Bruna Saito from Pexels

And of course, parents are being reminded to lead by example, because they too are at risk of developing eye strain as a result of spending increased time in front of screens during this period.

Other tips for parents of kids being home-schooled:

  • Sit at least an arm’s length away from the computer screen (~60cm) and try not to hold tablets or smartphones too close to the eyes (~30-40cm).
  • Use lubricant eye-drops or artificial tears to refresh the eyes when they feel dry (we blink less often when concentrating). Consider using a humidifier if working in an air-conditioned or heated environment or see your optometrist for a dry eye evaluation if symptoms are severe.
  • Avoid using screens in an otherwise dark room and set up computer screens so there are no reflections from windows.
  • Consider installing digital apps and programs such as f.Lux and Apple Night Shift to help reduce dim screens automatically and reduce blue light from LED screens at night.
  • Avoid using screens for an hour before bed.

You can read more on this topic here, or if you have any questions contact your local optometrist here.

Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Due to Coronavirus (COVID-19) optometry practices may be operating differently than they usually do, and may not currently be offering all services or open standard hours. We recommend calling your optometrist and discussing your eye health concerns and how they are best met. If you would prefer not to access face-to-face care, you can also use our Find an Optometrist function to locate an optometrist near you providing telehealth services.

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