The early childhood years are a period of rapid growth and development. This is also the most important time to lay the foundation for a healthy lifestyle. Good family habits ensure that the children achieve their full potential later in life.
The most important concern for doctors these days is the growing rate of childhood obesity and early myopia or short sightedness in children. Increased screen time is the single most important risk factor identified in these childhood conditions. Screen time is the number of hours a person spends watching the digital displays or LED screens of computers, tablets, television and mobile phones.
Now we need to understand how excessive screen time affects a child’s health. LED screens of gadgets emit high energy visible light called blue light (Figure 1). The peripheral retina which is ‘designed’ for night time vision, when exposed to this high energy blue light is stimulated adversely and over a period of time leads to disproportionate enlargement of the back part of the eye leading to myopia.
Secondly, this high energy blue light also affects the circadian rhythm or sleep wake cycle. Once the sleep wake cycle is disturbed it can lead to childhood obesity, poor attention span, irritability and hyperactivity attention deficit disorders. Excessive screen time can also cause problems like headaches, eye strain, dry and irritated eyes.
Figure 1. Harmful high energy blue light from digital screens
Role of parents cannot be overemphasized in developing healthy habits in children. Though parents are concerned when kids spend too much time in front of screens, they’re clueless about what they must do. In the following sections we will discuss how parents can limit screen time and its harmful effects in children.
According to the World Health Organization children below 5 years should not be exposed to screens at all! That is zero screen time! Parents often complain that the kid becomes irritable and cranky if they refuse to hand over their mobile to them. But this is no ‘chicken and egg’ story. The hard truth is, it’s the parents who first gave the mobile to the child or sat him in front of the television, in order to make the child eat or as a pacifier when they were busy with work. Therefore, parents have to realize that they need to spend quality time with the child and use other more constructive methods to keep them busy. For the very young child every object in the house is a toy. Parents need to train their young children early and tell them what is a toy and what isn’t. Mobile is not a toy and they will not get it- must be emphasized.
With the coronavirus pandemic and online classes most children above 5 years of age are exposed to greater screen time than ever before. In this situation we have to understand how we can reduce screen time and how to prevent its harmful effects on the eyes.
- Most computer and mobile screens have the option of night mode display. This reduces the blue light emission to an extent.
- Parents must take their children for regular eye examination in an eye hospital near by and get their children screened for myopia and dry eyes. Timely spectacle prescription reduces the eye strain that makes kids suffer.
- Adjust the lighting of the room so that it is not directly behind or in front of the screen as this can lead to glare from the screen and eye strain. Low-level glare-free overhead light or frosted bulbs are best suited for computer work (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Appropriate lighting for computer work
4. Seating and posture are also important to prevent backaches and neck strain in older children with long hours of study. Parents must take care that the child sits on a comfortable chair with back support and feet on the ground. The computer screen must be at eye level. Lying on the bed is a strict no! (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Correct seating and posture
5. After every 20 minutes of screen time the child must look at an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This is the 20-20-20 rule and it helps reduce eye strain from continuous near work.
6. When the child is engrossed looking at the screen the blink rate (the number of times the eyes blink in a minute) falls. This leads to excessive evaporation of tears, dry eyes and irritation and redness. The child has to be reminded to blink regularly in order to avoid this.
7. Healthy food habits can also make a lot of positive difference. Keeping the child hydrated with optimum water intake is important. Dehydration is not good for the eyes. All orange and green fruits and vegetables are rich in Vitamin A which is required for the optimum functioning of the retina or nerve layer of the eye. Examples include carrots, papaya, spinach, fenugreek, sweet potato etc. Boosting the immune system in the time of Covid19 surely helps. Children can be given fruits rich in Vitamin C such as guava, kiwi fruit, apricots, grapes, etc. Vitamin C supplements are good for the eyes and also help to boost the immune system.
8. Last but not the least parents must always discourage children from screen time other than school work. Of course it is hard but they have to encourage the child to play outdoors and introduce them to more constructive means of utilizing their time when at home. Mobile games which involve continuous unwarranted screen time is way too harmful.
As they say, it takes a village to raise a child. Parents must not feel they’re alone and they must visit the eye doctor for regular check ups and advice for their kids and work together to build a healthy future for them. An NABH accredited eye hospital with all specialities and trusted opticians helps parents take the right decisions and ensure their children’s eye health and future well-being.