With Technology Use Leading to More Vision Problems, How Will Healthcare Step in?
At times, it can feel impossible to have productive conversations about moderating our use of technology. When somebody raises concern about one issue, it’s easy to assume they mistrust technology generally. And maybe they do. But the all-or-nothing rhetoric when it comes to technology isn’t that helpful, generally speaking. Worse, it’s overshadowing some real causes for concern.
We’ve all chosen to surround ourselves with technology. And it’d be disingenuous to say “technology in general” hasn’t elevated the average standard of living. But the degree to which we rely on technology for productivity, entertainment and connectivity might be contributing to our poor health: specifically, with the poor health of our eyesight.
For the sake of our children in school, who are exposed to more and more screens earlier and earlier in life, is it time for a reckoning with some of our most visual technology?
How Much Screen Time in Life Is Too Much?
For a start, let’s take a moment to appreciate the direction things are headed.
The introduction of digital technologies into the classroom has been a long transition and is still ongoing. Each year, tech companies like Apple and Google promise the world to educators, with new tools designed specifically for use in the classroom, like build-your-own digital textbooks and advanced drawing tools.
Whether or not the average schoolteacher in America has the time or resources to assemble their own digital textbook is an open question. The point is, all of this encouraged screen time in the classroom is followed by further screen time at home: the American Optometric Association (AOA) reported via a 2015 survey that 66 percent of kids own a mobile computer such as a smartphone or tablet and 41 percent of kids spend at least three hours per day in front of a screen.
The question is whether the supposed benefits of letting technology replace a larger and larger share of existing teaching methods results in higher-quality instruction and a better-prepared student.
Because there’s every reason to believe technology will become a staple in earlier and earlier educational years. In Ontario, for instance, 80 percent of students begin learning on computers in kindergarten. So is there value here?
Potentially, yes. Both anecdotal and scholarly evidence seems to suggest that visual explanations, when they accompany difficult or complex topics, tend to aid in retention of the learned material and promote higher “spatial abilities.” Evidence even suggests turning learning into a game — “gamification” — can help some topics “stick” better for kids in school.
But can we take these recognized concepts too far? And can we take better measures to promote an awareness of technology-induced eyesight problems?
How Screen Time Takes a Physical Toll
Over the coming years, there’s every reason to believe that computer simulations and digital instruction will become an even more inextricable part of school curricula across the world, beginning at earlier and earlier ages. To put it another way, we’re looking at the first couple of generations, ever, who will have grown up with regular access to electronic devices for their entire lives. You don’t have to be a luddite or an alarmist to appreciate how unprecedented this situation is.
“We need to make sure that children and parents are aware of the visual risks associated with staring at screens for long periods of time and take the proper precautions to help alleviate eye and vision problems.” That’s according to Barbara L. Horn, O.D., speaking for the AOA.
Horn is a Trustee for the American Optometric Association, meaning she speaks for an assembly of doctors when she points out that this screen time is linked with “eye strain” in growing children. It sounds fairly harmless, but its symptoms include:
- Neck pain
- Burning and itchy eyes
- Impaired focus
- Double and blurred vision
This is an incredibly unfortunate set of symptoms for any developing mind and body to have to deal with unnecessarily. Even one or two of these experienced by a student in the classroom represents a, so to speak, physical and even mental handicap.
But more than just compromising students’ ability to focus in the classroom, retain information and perform well on tests, we’re beginning to better understand some of the much longer-term, and frankly much more grim, consequences of spending so many of our waking hours in front of screens — even when the intentions are pure enough, such as providing a stimulating learning experience.
Optometrists are beginning to better understand why swapping some of our students’ screen time for time spent outside might be vital to their long-term health: researchers now attribute a lack of exposure to “true sunlight” as a potential risk factor for nearsightedness — myopia — in young people. Since the human eye undergoes a series of changes between the ages of 5 and 13, according to Dr. Horn, these are the critical years when kids, parents, and society in general, must remain keenly aware of all of the factors which might compromise their development.
It’s worth repeating these findings again, because they’re important: Trading natural light for the unsparing light from a screen is making it far more likely that kids growing up today will suffer from compromised eyesight later in life.
The first line of defense against this collection of symptoms is what the AOA calls the “20-20-20 Rule.” It’s where you take a 20-second screen break every 20 minutes to specifically focus on another object that’s 20 feet away. Another thing you can do is search your device settings for a feature like “Night Shift” in iOS. It was designed to filter out eye-straining blue light from our device screens well before bedtime — another way younger students can defend themselves against eye strain — but it can be used any time of day, whether for studying or performing digital work for a company.
These are baby steps, to be sure, toward finding a better screen time “balance” in our lives — particularly the lives of kids who are still in school and who shouldn’t have anything compromising their ability to excel.
How Health Care Can Address This
In the meantime: what about health care? We’ve all collectively agreed that technology can and must play a central role in our lives. We’ve been even slower in recognizing the physical and mental toll some of this reliance might be taking on us — and slower still in recognizing health care as an essential human right.
The AOA’s takeaways from this series of revelations concludes with a call for being more proactive with the health of our kids and our families. For instance, a good place to start is talking with your kids about their eyesight and general health more regularly.
Beyond that, the American Optometric Association recommends bringing children in for optometrist appointments at the ages of six months and three years — and then once per year afterward. Families with children would also do well to better understand the “Pediatric Essential Health Benefit” included in the Affordable Care Act — “Obamacare” — which provides coverage for eye exams for minors.
Even if there’s work to do, it’s encouraging to see clear steps emerging toward having a broader conversation and a more complete response to this very specific and surprisingly urgent type of health worry.