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Heavy screen time could be changing your eyes

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Published: Jan. 27, 2022 at 7:03 AM EST|Updated: Jan. 27, 2022 at 7:06 AM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - For years, parents have put restrictions on screen time for children in an effort to increase physical activity and socialization.

However, for the greater part of the past two years, we’ve undoubtedly had to spend more time on screens as a result of the pandemic.

Now, doctors are discovering the increase in screen time is affecting several areas of our lives, including how well we see them.

“It’s so important that we have good vision,” explains Dr. Earl Loftis, “but we also kind of overuse our eyes now.”

Dr. Loftis has been an optometrist in the Midlands for over four decades.

He’s seen just about everything when it comes to your eyes, but he’s never seen so many people struggling with the same issue.

“Near-sightedness is at epidemic levels, particularly in Asian countries, and it’s 100-percent related to iPhones, iPads, computers,” says Dr. Loftis.

A largely unrecognized epidemic happening across the globe. More and more people are being diagnosed with myopia, also known as near-sightedness, in which you can see up close clearly, but have trouble seeing far away.

“When I first got out of practice, Myopia was not that big of a deal,” says Dr. Loftis, “About 17 percent of the market was near-sighted. Now, I read a statistic last night and it’s over 50 percent in America, it’s over 80 percent in China.”

In fact, the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) predicts half the world’s population could be myopic by 2050.

According to a study published in the Lancet Digital Health, high levels of smart device screen time among kids and young adults is associated with around 30 percent higher risk of myopia. When combined with excessive computer use, the risk rose to around 80 percent.

While myopia can be genetic, it can also be caused by environment.

Consider our environment for the past two years – schools shifting online, work going remote – it meant more time on screens, resulting in perhaps an unexpected pandemic side effect.

“Our peripheral vision is beginning to lose its focus because we’re getting honed in on this small area that we see and we’re not allowing our eyes to relax,” Dr. Loftis explains. “And it’s really and truly creating a basic change in your eyes where your muscles get so bound and tight that it makes your eyeball stretch a little bit and when it stretches you become nearsighted.”

The AAO says myopia that begins in early childhood can often worsen over time. If changes become too extreme, it can be hard to correct with glasses or contacts and lead to vision-changing conditions.

So, how can you help your eyes?

Dr. Loftis says it’s as easy as getting outside.

“What we need is relaxation of the muscle, " explains Dr. Loftis, “The way the eyes work, when we look far away we relax and when we look up close we focus”

Dr. Loftis explains if you were outside, looking into a field or your backyard, your eyes would be focused on infinity and totally relax.

Aside from your eyes, there are some other benefits to getting outside, especially during the pandemic.

“Time outdoors was linked to lower levels of depression while time on screens was linked to higher levels of depression so getting out in nature is really important,” explains Dr. Edmond Bowers.

Dr. Bowers is an associate professor at Clemson University. He studies how things such as nature and technology can be leveraged to promote positive and healthy development among young people.

“In our study, we found the same thing, its people that are marginalized offline are the ones that are mostly online and not getting time outdoors. And time outdoors is really key because it’s linked to positive youth development,” says Dr. Bowers.

While understanding the importance of nature-based activities, Dr. Bowers says it’s unrealistic to think kids won’t be on screens.

“It’s a ubiquitous part of development and you’re not going to get around getting kids off screens or away from screens, so it’s the idea of how do you leverage screens for positive outcomes.”

Dr. Bowers says engaged and positive parenting and peer relationships will leave to more positive and engaged screen users.

Along with limiting screen time when possible and encouraging outdoor play, experts say parents and teachers can remind kids to take a 20-second break from closeup work, every 20 minutes. Setting a timer will remind you and your kid.

Additionally, keeping digital media as far away from the face as possible –at least 18 to 24 inches.

Dr. Loftis says he also believes when you hand a child a device, you ought to be handing them a pair of glasses with blue light protection. Make sure you get the blue light glasses from a trusted source, as many retailers, especially online, don’t block the percentage of blue light necessary to protect your eye.

Lastly, Dr. Bowers says the types of activities kids engage with online are important factors to consider. He says screen time activities may sometimes help achieve developmental tasks like strengthening peer relationships, building competence and confidence and identitying formation. Dr. Bowers says support these types of positive activities compared to mindless scrolling on social media.

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