Dr. Kristy Bhend of You and Eye Family Eye Care said she’s seen two major complaints in the past year from children and teens: headaches and eye fatigue, and worsening prescriptions.
“The amount of near work we do all day is increasing nearsighted progression,” she said. “We’re having a lot of people become more nearsighted because they spend all day doing that work.”
“Near work” is any activity that’s within arm’s reach — like reading books, focusing on computer lectures, and using cellphones and iPads. Close-up activities force the eyes to “use their focusing systems,” Bhend said, which were never designed for all-day use — “just like our arms weren’t designed to be held up all day.”
Additionally, blue light from digital devices can worsen eye fatigue and headaches, and delay sleep.
However, Bhend said the strain of spending all day on a computer wears out the eye's ability to focus even more.
“They’re getting tired and fatigued, and it’s affecting the ability, for some people, to focus altogether,” she said.
Some patients may end up with a focusing spasm, where their eyes get stuck in near-work mode. Others end up fatigued.
“They say, ‘I just can’t seem to read at the end of the day, I get tired,’ ” Bhend said. “There’s a whole host of symptoms that can be noted.”
Both environment and genetics play a role in eye health, said Dr. Eva So, an optometrist at the Rochester Family Eye Clinic. While parents with glasses often produce children who need them at some point, shortened time outside, poor lighting, and prolonged screen time can cause eyestrain, which in turn, increases the risk of developing myopia.
The time children would have spent looking around classrooms, on playgrounds, and in the library is now spent in front of a computer or iPad, So said. Additionally, children and teens are likely turning to computers to socialize with family and friends, as well as to learn.
Worse eyes on the rise
“I’m sure the nearsighted amount will increase,” Bhend said.
More than two hours of screen time a day is considered a “high-risk” behavior for developing and worsening myopia, she said.
“Since we’re all over that time, we’re all at risk,” she said.
The expectation pre-COVID was that the U.S. population would be about 50% nearsighted by 2050, Bhend said. It’s reasonable to expect that COVID will speed that process up.
Myopia at a younger age can also increase risk of glaucoma, cataracts and other eye problems later in life, she said — so this generation could be feeling the effects of increased screen time decades from now.
There are a few ways to combat digital eyestrain, Bhend and So said.
First, follow the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes, children and teens should look away from their screen at something that’s at least 20 feet away, for at least 20 seconds. Smaller children should take more frequent breaks, Bhend added — every five to ten minutes, depending on age.
Yearly eye exams can also help, So said. Optometrists can detect myopia well in advance, and provide treatments to help with computer eyestrain.