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Children's Vision and the New Classroom Technology

By Brenda Conaway
WebMD Feature

Today's teachers make full use of computers, interactive whiteboards, digital devices, and even 3D technology to enhance the learning environment. Forty percent of teachers use computers for instruction, and at least one computer is in 97% of all American classrooms. That adds up to a lot of screen time for kids who also watch TV or play on the computer at home. But is it harmful to a child’s vision?

Parents are worried. Nearly a third say they’re concerned that computers and handheld electronics may damage their child’s eyesight. And 53% of parents believe 3D viewing may be harmful, according to a survey by the American Optometric Association (AOA). 

What does science say? So far, no evidence-based study has found that new technology itself causes vision problems, other than eye fatigue. Yet a 2009 study showed that the number of people with nearsightedness (myopia) has increased from 25% to nearly 42% in the last 30 years.

One theory: Today’s kids spend far more time doing "near work," such as texting, looking stuff up on cell phones, and playing computer games. And the increased time spent looking at things close up may have an effect. Other possible factors may include genetics and lack of outdoor activity.

Eyestrain and New Technology: Old Worries in a New Age

"It used to be, 'if my child reads for too long, if my child reads too small print, if they hold the book too close, is that going to make them nearsighted?'" says Pia Hoenig, OD, MA, FAAO, associate clinical professor and chief of the Binocular Vision Clinic at UC Berkeley. Now parents are asking the same questions about computers, smart phones, and 3D.

But most vision experts say parents can rest assured, as long as they apply commonsense rules to how much time their children spend on electronic devices.

"These new technologies are challenging our visual system," says James E. Sheedy, OD, PhD, director of optometric research at the Vision Performance Institute and professor of optometry at Pacific University in Oregon. But there is no evidence that they actually damage the eyes. "There really is nothing to fear," Sheedy says.

Hoenig agrees: The key "is not to stop kids from using electronics -- there are too many pluses. It's to use them wisely."

How Digital Devices Affect Your Eyes

"I think all these new technologies are pretty wonderful," says Sheedy, who is also a technology and vision expert with the American Optometric Association. But, he says, there are things we need to be aware of.

  1.  Handheld devices cram a lot of text onto a very small screen. In order to see the small print, we need to hold it close to our eyes. "There's a muscle inside the eye that contracts so that you can focus," Sheedy says. At the same time, your eyes also need to cross, or come together. This can cause fatigue and eyestrain. So parents should advise kids to use handheld devices only for quick tasks, such as texting. Don't use them to read articles or documents, Sheedy says.
  2.  Computers bring up a different issue, Sheedy tells WebMD. "One of the things about a computer is that the display is fixed on the desk.” With a magazine or book, we may flop down on the couch, put our feet up, or shift around a lot while we read. At a computer we sit for long periods in still, static positions. “And for kids, very often the work space and the sizes of the tables are not well-designed for them," he says. This can cause neck and back pain.
  3.  Also, looking at a computer for long periods of time really fatigues the eyes, Sheedy says. This can result in eyestrain, headaches, dry eyes, blurred vision, and trouble seeing far objects, a condition called computer vision syndrome. These symptoms usually go away once you stop using the computer.


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