How to build healthy screen time habits for kids

Physical Health

Screen time and eyesight: How to develop healthy habits in kids

With time spent in lockdown, home-schooling, and less opportunity to get outside, our children have been staring at screens even more than usual — and are facing potential eye issues as a result.

When her daughter Lizzie started high school in 2020, Wenying Han noticed a dramatic increase in her screen time. “Primary school was more outdoors — lots of running around on the grass. High school was different. Lizzie had to take a laptop and she got a phone to stay in touch with friends.”

With a history of myopia (short-sightedness) herself, Wenying was conscious of wanting her daughter to stay away from screens where possible, but admits she had to be realistic. “I didn’t want to be too harsh. She’s a teenager. They use their phones to connect with each other.”

Instilling healthy habits in kids around screens is tough for parents and carers at the best of times. Throw a pandemic into the mix, and setting boundaries around screen time for our young ones becomes even trickier.

But research shows an increase in myopia among children since the pandemic began, and experts are wondering if screens are to blame. One study has revealed an almost 400% increase in six-year-olds with myopia symptoms during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020.

“Family history and limited time outdoors are known to be contributing factors,” says Senior HCF Optometrist, Whitney Lam. “Our increased dependence on screens, and being locked down during the pandemic, can certainly increase our time indoors.”

With this increase in screen-related eye conditions, it’s important we try to encourage kids of all ages to develop healthy digital habits.

The link between screens and eye strain

HCF data shows over 20% more school-aged children claimed for glasses or contact lenses in 2020, compared to figures from five years ago.

“Digital exposure for children and adolescents has increased significantly during lockdown periods,” says Dr Kristy Goodwin, one of Australia’s leading digital wellbeing experts. “[Both groups] are reporting an increase in eye strain symptoms, including headaches, blurred vision, tired eyes, redness or dry eyes after long periods in front of screens.

“When children and teens are learning online — whether at school or remotely — and also spending their leisure time online, their occipital and temporal lobes, which process the [information] from digital devices, are working incredibly hard.”

In addition to fatigue and eye strain, another way devices could be harming our children’s sight is simply by reducing the number of hours they’re doing anything else, like spending time outside.

“Developing eyes aren’t meeting the recommended amount of two hours a day of what I call ‘green time’, which is time in natural sunlight,” says Dr Goodwin. “Not only is this critical for overall eye health, there are many studies that show children who spend more time outdoors are less likely to be short-sighted as adolescents.”

The effects of screens on our sleeping patterns

Being on our devices all day can also affect our sleep because exposure to blue light impacts the brain’s ability to produce the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin.

“Exposure to blue light has also increased, particularly during the evenings,” Dr Goodwin explains. “This not only delays the onset of sleep, but can also shorten critical phases of the sleep cycle impacting mood, immunity, focus and learning.”

Some scientists believe that teenagers are particularly sensitive to the effects of blue light, as young eyes let more light in. In fact, according to the Sleep Foundation, excessive screen time has been linked to insomnia in teenagers – and particularly when social media is used late at night, this can eat into sleep time by boosting alertness and delaying the natural onset of sleepiness.

Building healthy screen habits from day one

It’s never too early to start building healthy habits around digital devices with your kids.

“I often say to parents, the minute you hand your toddler a smartphone or a tablet, is the minute you need to start having these conversations to cultivate digital wellbeing skills,” says Dr Goodwin.

As with any healthy habit, the sooner we start helping our children manage the way they use devices, the more potential eyesight problems we can prevent. While lockdowns and home-schooling have made it harder for busy parents to monitor the time kids spend staring at screens, Dr Goodwin says not to get hung up on recommended hours, and instead focus on the bigger picture.

“We have evidence that tells us that there's a displacement effect, particularly for young children, because they have a limited number of waking hours each day. We need to make sure their fundamental physical and psychological needs are being met, and that screen time isn't displacing those needs. So, are they getting enough physical activity, are they spending enough time outside, are they using lots of language, are they playing, and are they getting enough sleep?”

Is one screen better than another?

When we talk about screen time, we often think of smartphones, tablets, and even smartwatches. But what about TV? Are all screens really as bad as each other when it comes to eyesight?

“Government guidelines consider screen time to include televisions, laptops, smartphones and gaming consoles. The full gamut is under one umbrella. But they are different experiences,” says Dr Goodwin. “Watching TV before bed is usually a better choice than a handheld device for two reasons. First, TV doesn’t tend to emit as much blue light, which interferes with sleep patterns. Second, TV is a passive activity, and doesn’t have the hyperarousal effect we associate with other devices.”

Tips to prevent eye strain in children

“I was shocked when Lizzie’s laptop said she was using it on average eight hours a day,” says Wenying, who says she tries to get her daughter outside as much as possible on school days, and the laptop stays shut at the weekend.

Prevention is always better than cure, so it’s vital we encourage our kids to develop healthy digital habits early on. But with so much education and socialisation done via screens, what are busy parents supposed to do?

There are some easy — and realistic — ways parents can help children look after their eyesight, even during times when we rely on screens to home-school, work, and save a little of our sanity.

  1. The 20-20-20 Rule
    Every 20 minutes, ask your child to look away from their device, stare into the distance for 20 seconds, and blink 20 times. “One of the reasons we get eye strain is our blink rate drops dramatically when we look at a fixed object, which is why we get dry eyes,” says Dr Goodwin.
  2. Go analogue
    With so many children having to use devices for education, parents and carers need to be creative when it comes to getting them away from a screen. Dr Goodwin suggests going old-school. “Where possible go analogue! Print out what they need to work on so they can write by hand. As well as helping with retention of information, it’s an easy way to reduce digital exposure.”
  3. Get some shut-eye
    A particular favourite with tired parents (who hasn’t played the ‘sleeping’ game with an over-active toddler?), Dr Goodwin recommends closing your eyes. “Get kids to close their eyes for 10 seconds or longer. Not only does this give the occipital and temporal lobes a rest, the alpha brainwaves, which help you stay focused, increase from just a 10-second period of closing your eyes.”
  4. Take a (quality) break
    Sunlight is vital for overall good eye health, and it’s recommended that children spend a minimum of two hours outside every day. While it doesn’t have to be all in one block, Dr Goodwin recommends starting the day by heading out of the house if it’s practical. “Natural sunlight between 8am and 12pm can help reset the circadian rhythm, which will improve quality and quantity of sleep, and help fight fatigue.”

    Whitney agrees, saying a break needs to be a break from any kind of screen. “Going from learning on a laptop to gaming on a console isn’t giving your eyes a break. We need to encourage a break from any near work, which is anything within an arm’s length.”

Help for eye conditions

When Lizzie started to complain of problems with her sight, Wenying made an appointment with her HCF optometrist. “She was prescribed eye drops, then specialist glasses, to slow down the progression of her myopia. HCF was very supportive and helpful and the advice was spot on. We do our best as well. We insist on Lizzie taking her recess and lunch breaks outside, we walk the dog, go scooting and play netball. Anything to get her outside and in the sun.”

Keeping a close watch on your children as they’re using devices can help reveal potential warning signs. If your child is squinting, rubbing their eyes, or complaining of headaches, their sight could be struggling. Thankfully there are treatments your optometrist can recommend.

“Special glasses, contact lenses, and drops have all shown evidence of slowing myopia in children,” says Whitney.  Children should be tested annually to pick up any early signs of eye conditions. However, if you notice any symptoms in your kids, it’s a good idea to bring your kids in earlier than the annual check-up for that to be addressed.

Words by Kerry McCarthy
First published October 2021

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