In the past decade, computer use among children in the United States has become pervasive. Consider these statistics:
94 percent of American families with children have a computer in the home with access to the Internet.* The amount of time children ages 8 to 18 devote to entertainment media (including computer and video games) each day has increased from 6.19 hours in 1999 to 7.38 hours in 2009.** In 2009, 29 percent of American children ages 8 to 18 had their own laptop computer, and kids in grades 7 through 12 reported spending an average of more than 90 minutes a day sending or receiving texts on their cell phones.** Many pediatric eye doctors believe that heavy computer use among children puts them at risk for early myopia. Recent research appears to confirm that fear.A large study conducted by the National Eye Institute and published in the December 2009 issue of Archives of Ophthalmology found that the prevalence of nearsightedness among Americans has increased from 25 percent to 41.6 percent of the population over the past 30 years — an increase of more than 66 percent.
Also, among people with 12 or more years of formal education, the prevalence of myopia is now as high as 59.8 percent. Sitting for hours in front of a computer screen stresses a child's eyes because the computer forces the child's vision system to focus and strain a lot more than any other task. This can put children at an even greater risk than adults for developing symptoms of computer vision syndrome. Today it is a "near-point world," and parents need to be aware of the vision problems associated with computer work. Computer use demands fine motor skills from young eyes that are not well developed. Only when the visual system matures is a child better able to handle the stress of a computer on that system. According to the American Optometric Association (AOA), parents should consider these factors affecting children and computer use:
Children may not be aware of how much time they are spending at a computer. They may perform a task on the computer for hours with few breaks. This prolonged activity can cause eye focusing and eye strain problems.Children are very adaptable. They assume that what they see and how they see is normal — even if their vision is problematic. That's why it is important for parents to monitor the time a child spends working at a computer and make sure they have regular eye exams as directed by their optometrist or ophthalmologist.
Children are smaller than adults. Since computer workstations often are arranged for adult use, this can change the viewing angle for young children. Computer users should view the screen slightly downward, at a 15-degree angle. Also, if a child has difficulty reaching the keyboard or placing their feet comfortably on the floor, he or she may experience neck, shoulder and/or back pain.
The AOA offers parents these tips to decrease the risk of computer vision syndrome among children:
1. Have your child's vision checked. Before starting school, every child should have a comprehensive eye exam, including near-point (computer and reading) and distance testing.
2. Limit the amount of time your child spends at the computer without a break. Encourage kids to take 20-second breaks from the computer every 20 minutes to minimize the development of eye focusing problems and eye irritation. (Some eye doctors call this the "20-20 rule.")
3. Check the ergonomics of the workstation. For young and small children, make sure the computer workstation is adjusted to their body size. The recommended distance between the monitor and the eye for children is 18 to 28 inches. Viewing the computer screen closer than 18 inches can strain the eyes. [Read more tips for reducing computer eye strain.]
4. Check the lighting. To reduce glare, windows and other light sources should not be directly visible when sitting in front of the monitor. Reduce the amount of lighting in the room to match the computer screen.
In addition to the risk of computer vision syndrome, there is concern that excessive computer use during childhood may have adverse effects on a child's physical development. Recently, researchers in Australia and at the University of Washington (Seattle, Wash.) and the Harvard School of Public Health (Boston, Mass.) reviewed the current scientific literature about this and published a number of guidelines for parents to help their children attain appropriate physical development.
These guidelines include:
1. Encourage a mix of tasks throughout the day. Children should take frequent breaks from computer use and to take part in a variety of activities that involve postural changes and physical movement. Performing sedentary tasks using electronic media (computer use, watching TV, texting, etc.) should be limited to less than two hours per day.
2. Encourage the use of proper postures when working at a desktop computer. Workstations should be designed to suit the child's size and enable a range of suitable postures. Among other suggestions: Feet should be able to rest comfortably on the floor; desk height should at elbow height; document holders should be used to position paper materials near the computer screen; the top of the computer screen should be at eye level; the screen should be positioned and angled to avoid glare.
3. Encourage appropriate behaviors when using and transporting notebook computers, including using appropriate alternative postures for variety and using a backpack with dual shoulder straps for carrying the computer to and from classes.
4. Teach your child computing skills, including how to touch-type with minimum force and how to use keyboard shortcuts to reduce mouse use.
5. Teach your child to respond appropriately to discomfort during computer use, including taking more frequent breaks and, if symptoms persist, seeking advice from a health care professional.