Parents worry about screen time.

It’s become a fact of life, and something we all have to manage alongside the risks of accidents, smoking, alcohol, and drugs. When we worry about screen time the dangers have usually seemed to come from concerns about addiction, or violent games, nasty online content, or the lack of exercise, fresh air and all the snacking that can accompany a gaming session.

But have we been worrying about the wrong things?

Well, no, unfortunately, these are all still concerns that we need to be aware of, but we ALSO need to concern ourselves with the risk to eyesight of kids spending more time on screens. The good news is that there are actions we can take to reduce the risks, however.

First of all, the science.

New evidence is starting to emerge that more young people are becoming short sighted, and that screen time may be part of the problem.

A fascinating article written by the clinical director of the Children’s Eye Service at Moorfields Hospital London (Annegret Dahlmann-Noor) recently outlined the rise in myopia (short sightedness) in young people, and it led me to wonder how we, as parents and carers, can respond and counter the risks.

Let’s start with some of the key facts from the article.

·      Over the past 50 years, the proportion of young people in the UK who develop myopia (short sightedness) has doubled.

·      In the UK, a sixth of 12-to-13-year-olds, and over a quarter of 15-to-16-year-olds and young adults now have myopia.

·      Myopia can lead to long term sight complications and sight loss in later life, so it is not just about kids potentially needing glasses or lenses now but about protecting their long-term vision.

It is not yet very clear why more young people are becoming short sighted but less time outdoors in natural light seems to be a factor, so according to Dr Dahlmann-Noor ‘spending more time outdoors can delay the onset of myopia and can also – to a small extent – reduce its progression.’ This is good news for parents, at it is something within our control to oversee and encourage.

The other factor that is of relevance is that young people now spend more time not only indoors (and out of sunlight) but on ‘near activities’ such as reading or screen work, both in the classroom and for play; connecting with friends online, gaming or watching YouTube/ films/ programmes.

The article states that ‘studies in China clearly demonstrated that the pandemic-inflicted reduction in time outdoors, coupled with a dramatic increase in time spent on screens for schooling and education led to earlier onset and faster progression of myopia, comparing ‘pandemic’ with ‘pre-pandemic’ year groups.’

So a combination of less time outdoors and more screen time, in the pandemic, seems to have led to worsening eyesight.

What can we do?

Here are some suggestions based on expert international guidance for reducing the risk of short sightedness in your young people (and yourself!).

1.     Balance time outside with screen time every day - they should spend 2 hours outside per day - time off screens is vital for eye health.

2.     After 20 minutes of near work, gaze into the distance for at least 20 seconds.

3.     Close work should be performed at a distance of at least 30 cm, no nearer, so check how closely they are holding their book or iPad/ computer.

4.     Boost vitamin D by increasing exposure to day light, as low vitamin D is associated with higher risk of short sightedness.

Schools should consider measures such as modifying classroom design to allow more light and an extended field of view, increasing school break time outdoors and building awareness through public health campaigns, all of which are being tried in Asia, where this issue is much higher up the public health agenda.

So whilst I hate to be the bearer of bad news and yet another thing to worry about, I hope that you will find this blog helpful as there is plenty we can do to mitigate the risks of increasing screen time by ensuring breaks and getting outside more.

Now please take a break from your screen and go outside! You matter too!

If you want to know more about eye testing for children check out the NHS website page here. The page also has a helpful list of what signs to watch for that might indicate your child needs an eye test (free in the UK for under 16s or under 19s in full time education).