WILLIAM WILKIE says that in an age of screen teaching all parents must focus more on their children’s eyesight
After a year of home schooling there are legitimate questions to be asked about the potential effect of an unprecedented increase in screen time on children’s eye health, particularly younger children in their formative years.
While their children’s household use of laptops, tablets, phones and TVs may seem to parents to have been going on forever, the timescale is in fact far too short for any meaningful analysis of whether there has been a deterioration in school age eyesight as a direct result of being taught remotely.
But that does not mean that parents should not be aware of the potential effect of daily screen usage, and certainly we have seen a greater incidence of complaints about eye strain, headaches and sensitivity to light in our practices in the past year.
Given the constantly increasing amount of time everyone spends on mobile devices in an interconnected world, it might be argued that this is hardly surprising, but the only way to be sure is for parents to take their child for an eye test.
The sort of symptoms to look out for include:
· An eye appearing to drift inwards or outwards, known as a squint
· Difficulty concentrating
· Behavioural problems
· Sitting too close to the television
· Frequent eye rubbing
Fortunately, pre-school eye examinations are back on track after some initial disruption in the early part of the pandemic and this form of screening is invaluable in detecting issues before they develop into major eye health problems.
With very young children, the brain effectively hides eye problems from them and if they have one good eye and one bad, they will work with the best image. The great thing about pre-school screening is that it checks both eyes together to achieve true results.
It is inevitable that some families will have slipped through the screening net, either because the parent was unable to take the child or because the child was unwilling to go. Parents in this situation should make an appointment at the earliest opportunity with their local optometrist.
One of the dangers of the home classroom is that school work successfully undertaken and completed on a laptop can be rewarded with more screen time, such as a “break” for gaming or YouTube viewing on a tablet.
It is important to try to replicate what would actually happen in a class, organising different activities which entail different focal lengths, interspersed with non-screen activities as well as time outdoors when the eyes can adjust and recalibrate on wider panoramas.
It is also worth remembering that, this unusual year apart, research shows that around 20% of school-age children have an undiagnosed vision problem, so it is never too early to have a sight test.
This is particularly the case if you notice that your child has developed a squint, or if there is a family history of this kind of eye abnormality. Parents should monitor their children’s screen time and make sure that they take regular breaks.
In centrally-heated homes, it is necessary to ensure that the young home pupils are getting enough water. Regular exercise, especially outdoors as the weather improves, will maintain good general health, as will restorative sleep.
The UK National Screening Committee recommends screening at age four to five years, but optometrists will see children much younger than this for a sight test so that conditions can be identified and treated at the earliest possible opportunity.
Good eyesight is crucial in making sure children develop to their full potential, both at school and socially. It’s worth making every effort to ensure that they can.
William Wilkie, BSc, MCOptom, is senior optometrist at Wilkie & Rider.
This article appears under the terms of the DB Direct service