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Opening our eyes to the damaging effects of digital devices

As we swiftly move into the digital age, increasing numbers of us are becoming dependent on digital devices for work, socialising and recreation. From televisions and computers to smartphones and tablets, there are more opportunities than ever for children to interact with digital technology both in education and play.

But how long are children using these devices on a daily basis? Are kids spending too long looking at screens and backlit devices and, if so, what effect is this having on their health?

We conducted a survey across 2,000 parents in the UK with children aged between 2 and 16, to see which digital devices children use and how regularly they use them.

Child watching television

Child holding smartphoneHow long do children spend using digital devices?

Digital devices are everywhere; from using a computer at school, watching a bit of TV at home or playing a game on a smartphone.

Almost half of the parents surveyed agreed that their children were spending too much time using digital devices on a daily basis, asserting that 1-2 hours using a device was an acceptable amount of time. But the actual amount of time kids spend using digital devices may be significantly more than we think.

According to the survey, children are spending an average of one hour per day on each of the following devices: personal computer, digital tablet (such as an iPad), games console and smartphone. They are also estimated to spend just over half an hour each on their e-readers (such as a Kindle), their MP3 players and on electronic learning devices. This is all on top of watching almost two hours of TV.

Collectively, that’s over seven hours that children are spending looking at electronic screens every day. Spending so much time looking at digital screens could potentially have a damaging effect on children’s eyesight.

How many children own a digital device?

Most UK households no longer share a computer or have only one television in the living room, but it might be surprising to learn that as many as 39% of parents taking part in the survey said that their children owned a tablet, whilst 38% acknowledged their children owned a smartphone.

With greater access to digital devices than any other generation before, it’s only natural that kids are turning to these devices for both work and play wherever they can. In turn, this means that children are spending more time than ever before staring at digital screens.

When we look at an object at close range, our eyes work harder to focus than they would if we were looking at something at a longer distance. Looking at electronic screens for lengthy periods of time means that our eyes are constantly working hard to bring the images or text on screen into focus.

Tablet screen

What are the effects of overuse of digital devices on eyesight?

Thinking about the amount of time children are spending looking at electronic screens on a daily basis would give any parent cause for concern, especially when it comes to the effect it has on their vision.

The survey found that 66% of parents were concerned about overuse of digital devices with a further 60% specifically worried about the effect that the overuse of digital devices would have on their children’s eyesight.

The most common side-effect of using digital devices for a prolonged amount of time is Digital Eye Strain. This can be caused by children holding the devices improperly, in most cases, too close to their eyes as a result of small text or pixelated images on screen.

Another potential cause of eye strain is the high-energy visible light (HEV) commonly emitted by digital devices. Frequent exposure to HEV light, especially at night, can be damaging to eyesight, often causing vision to deteriorate over time.

We asked optical expert Rob Hogan, a registered optometrist for over 33 years, his thoughts on digital use before bedtime: “It is important to limit access just before bedtime, as research has found that the background “blue-ish” light typically emitted from these devices can disrupt normal sleep patterns. Also, blue light chronically absorbed throughout life is implicated in Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD), increasingly found in later life.”

Of course, with the explosive growth of digital device usage still being quite a recent phenomenon, there is still much research needed to understand the effects in more detail.

iMac study deskWhat are the other effects of overuse of a digital device?

Although very rare, excessive use of digital devices can lead to a number of issues, including behavioural problems, attention deficit disorder and eye strain. Many of these health issues can go unnoticed, as symptoms may not be apparent at first. However, continuous overuse can cause health issues to develop over time.

Overuse of digital devices may cause issues in later life. Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS) is one potential condition, more common for adults, which may arise due to digital screens. The symptoms of CVS include blurred vision, fatigue, headaches, and difficulty focusing. In addition, some people experience back, neck and shoulder pain from hunching over to look at small screens and focus on small text.

What preventative measures can be taken?

Digital devices have quickly become a staple part of daily life for both adults and children. So it’s hardly surprising that the risks and potential problems associated with the overuse of devices often go unnoticed.

Many parents taking part in the survey expressed concerns regarding the overuse of digital devices, with a number of parents feeling unsure as to what they can do to prevent the damaging effects on their children’s health.

Digital devices have become an essential part of our children’s lives both at home and at school, but prolonged use can be detrimental, and cause damage to their eyesight.

But parents can take precautionary measures to minimise any potential risk of digital devices. To ensure your kids use digital devices in a healthy way, Dr Rob Hogan has provided some tips and measures to ensure your child gets the most out of their devices whilst protecting their eyesight.

Using laptop and smartphone

Dr Rob Hogan’s top tips

Dr Rob Hogan has been a registered optometrist for over 33 years, and has spent over 20 years of his career directing and managing Professional Services for some of the largest Optometric Companies in the UK. He is also a council member of the General Optical Council (GOC), the biggest governing optical body in the UK.

  1. Take your child for regular eye checks.
    A child’s vision is critical to their learning and development, making regular checkups with an Optometrist essential in younger years. In the UK, all children under the age of 16 are entitled to free sight tests with the NHS. Your Optometrist will adjust their examination in accordance with the age and capability of the child. Whilst a child can be seen at any age, they are most typically tested in an Opticians’ practice from around the ages of 3-4. Make sure you let the optometrist know about any family history of eye or vision problems.
  1. When using a computer, place a light source behind you.
    When you or your child is on the computer, avoid placing a light source behind the screen, as your eyes will struggle to adjust to the two often glaring and competing light sources.Instead, place your lamp to the side or behind you to avoid discomfort and eye strain.
  1. Always sit at an arms distance away from your screen.
    Sitting too close to a screen can cause discomfort, stress and strain on your eyes and can be a sign that the child is developing short-sightedness or Myopia. To prevent this, always sit at least an arm’s length away from your screen. If you notice your child sits closer and is displaying signs of eye discomfort, they may require some form of vision correction, and we would advise to book an appointment with your local Optician.
  1. Every 20 minutes spent staring at a screen; spend 20 seconds looking at something 20 ft away.
    The 20/20/20 rule (for every 20 minutes spent on a digital device, spend 20 seconds looking at something 20 feet away) can be difficult to monitor in children. Designating a specific time period for digital use, with intermittent activities arranged between these times, will allow your child’s eyes to relax.

As well as some top tips and preventative measures for your child’s eyesight, all optometrists recommend swapping a digital screen for the pleasures of the great outdoors to improve a child’s overall health.