Everywhere you look these days, whether at the mall, restaurants or grocery stores, you see kids hunched over screens, eyes glazed over and entranced by the flashing lights. It’s no surprise that they’re becoming just as obsessed with gadgets as we are, considering how much screen time they’re getting.
According to a study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, kids ages 2-10 years old spend an average of 2 hours and 7 minutes a day with screen media. And with products on the market like the Fisher-Price Apptivity Seat and the SnuggWugg Interactive Baby Pillow, even babies are being primed for screen time, despite recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics against any exposure before the age of 2.
You have likely experienced symptoms of staring at a screen for prolonged periods of time, like dry eyes and strained vision. But for a kids’ developing eyesight, one has to wonder what effects this screen time has on long term eye health.
Thankfully, studies conducted thus far haven’t attributed long-term vision problems to screen usage as a kid. Mark S. Borchert, MD, director of both the Eye Birth Defects and Eye Technology Institutes in The Vision Center at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, states, “Multiple large population-based epidemiologic studies suggest that screen time does not affect the predisposition for glasses. At least 90% of the risk for needing glasses is genetic.”
But while screen time can’t take the blame for vision issues, it is important to note that it may have a different effect on babies’ eyes than those whose vision has already matured. According to David G. Hunter, MD, PhD, the ophthalmologist-in-chief at Boston Children’s Hospital and a professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School,we don’t really know what exposure to screens does to babies’ developing sight, especially since vision develops rapidly over the first year of life and continues to improve in visual acuity, color and contrast over the first few years. “We are visually mature around age 7 or so, but the eye continues to grow which is why kids often become nearsighted as they approach or enter the teenage years,” he adds.
Here are Dr. Hunter’s top recommendations for parents for preserving eye health in this digital age:
1. Get screening for eye disease: Kids of all ages – especially preschoolers – should have vision screening at their well child visit to detect treatable medical problems like amblyopia (“lazy eye”) and strabismus (misaligned eyes).
2. Limit screen time: While there isn’t any good evidence that screen time is harmful to the eyes, common sense dictates that too much screen time can’t be good for a developing child’s brain.
3. Get the kids out of the house: There is some evidence that more time spent out of doors in early childhood may reduce the likelihood of becoming nearsighted later in life.
4. Look away: For children and adults, staring for prolonged periods of time without blinking can dry the eyes out and cause eye strain. To prevent that, it is good practice to regularly look away from the screen and also to remember not to suppress the normal blink reflex.
And that age-old debate about sitting too close to the screen? Both doctors agree that there’s no real evidence indicating that any one distance is best. So parents can continue to bark at their kids to move away because they’re ruining their eyes, but the reality is that it doesn’t really matter. (Ssshhhh, don’t tell the kids that.)
You can’t talk about tech’s effect on eye health without addressing ears, too. With any handheld also comes the use of audio products, especially as kids get older. And hearing can be much more dramatically impacted by misuse of technology hearing can be much more dramatically impacted by misuse of technology. Dr. Debra Don, a specialist in pediatric otolaryngology at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, has seen middle and high schoolers in her office that have hearing loss potentially due to noise exposure. She states, “It is estimated that seven out of 10 people under the age of 30 will have some degree of permanent noise-induced hearing loss.” A sobering fact.
Dr. Jacob R. Brodsky, a pediatric otolaryngologist a Boston Children’s Hospital, is witnessing the same trend. “I have seen many children with hearing loss and/or tinnitus that is attributed to headphone use. This is certainly a problem where prevention is the best medicine, since noise-related hearing loss is typically irreversible.”
When it comes to what kids are using to listening to their music, most experts consider ear buds to be more detrimental to ear health because they apply sound directly into the ear canal. Dr. Don also adds that because ear buds don’t do as good of a job at blocking ambient noise as over-the-ear headphones do, kids are forced to pump up the volume. While expensive, many headphones do come with noise cancellation features, making them the safer choice for kids, assuming parents are still mindful of volume levels and duration.
Both doctors recommend parents use apps that help limit volume control on personal devices. There are many options available, such as Volume Control+ (free, Android) and Volume Sanity ($2.99, iTunes), as well as a volume restriction setting on iOS (Settings, Music, Volume Limit).
The most important thing to remember when it comes to kids’ ears is prevention. In addition, experts advise parents to:
Limit the volume on personal listening devices to 60% of maximum volume.
Limit headphone use to a maximum of 1.5 hours per day.
Avoid listening to headphones in noisy environments, such as on trains or in busy, public places.
Do a quick sound test when kids are using any audio products. Can you hear the music through their headphones or ear buds? If so, turn it down. The volume should be low enough that other people around them cannot hear it.
And while you’re busy preserving your kids’ eye and ear health, remember these tips for yourself too. With the amount of time we spend looking at and listening to our gadgets, we have to preserve our senses for all the new technology that’s in our futures.