newsletter 2017 may 05Life without smart phones in unimaginable. We depend on our mobile devices for viewing and responding to emails, checking the weather, reading headline news, posting status updates on Facebook and a host of other daily activities. Recent research and reports by optometrists reveal that staring at those tiny screens can bring on a number of eye problems, including blurred vision, sore eyes, headaches, muscle strain and dry eye. It has also emerged that smart phones can affect balance, and that icons zooming in and out can lead to dizziness. Reading on a smart phone in bed can interfere with sleep patterns due to the blue light emitted from the screen.

newsletter 2017 may 06Our eyes were not designed to stare at small screens for lengthy periods of time. Most adults will admit that they spend too much time looking at their phones, and now there is a growing concern around the extended time spent looking at smart phones by teenagers and even young children. Dry eye disease, typically found in older patients, is now being seen more frequently in children, due to prolonged staring at the screen without blinking. Normally, we blink about 15 times per minute, but this rate decreases by half when we are staring at our smartphones, causing the eyes to become red, irritated and swollen.

newsletter 2017 may 07As we squint to read these miniature screens, our facial, neck and shoulder muscles tighten, eyes become fatigued, vision can be blurred, and we may experience headaches. These symptoms, all related to digital eye strain, are becoming increasingly common in younger people.

Although more research needs to be done, it appears that there is a relationship between the overuse of smart phones and the recent increase in shortsightedness (myopia) in adolescents and younger children. Some experts believe that this is as much about screen time as about limited time spent outdoors exercising distance vision.

newsletter 2017 may 08While scientific evidence is inconclusive, there is growing concern that excess exposure to the blue light in digital screens may be a contributing factor to retina damage, and particularly age related macular degeneration. The closer the device is held to the eyes, the more intense the exposure, and the higher the risk of damage, making smart phones more harmful than television or computer screens.

As well as the risks to eye health, professionals who work with teenagers and young children have observed certain other effects. Teachers have reported that children often have difficulty concentrating on their work or sporting activities, because they are constantly distracted by the ring or buzz of smart phones. Incessant stimulation from smart phone activity can lead to a loss of creativity and imagination as quiet thought is frequently interrupted. Children have become so used to having a smart phone at hand at all times that they become bored and irritable if it is not available.

newsletter 2017 may 09The potential harmful effects of smart phones cannot be ignored, but stopping or prohibiting their use by teenagers is not a likely or effective solution to the problem. Often they are too young to understand the specific negative consequences of smart phone overuse, and it may be difficult for them to take it seriously. However, by making young people aware of the hazards, encouraging sensible smart phone use, and implementing a system of simple common sense behaviours, eye strain can be minimised and even avoided.

newsletter 2017 may 10Parents need to set clear boundaries as well as help their teenagers monitor and learn to control their smart phone use themselves. Limit the use of smart phones during the day, setting schedules that include time for homework, outdoor activity and socialising WITHOUT smart phones. Incorporate the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, look into the distance for 20 seconds, and blink 20 times. Better still, take regular screen breaks by moving away from the screen completely. This is particularly important for children who may not remember to give their eyes a rest, or be aware that they need to until it is too late, and their eyes are red and sore or their vision is blurred. Teach children to be mindful of blinking.

To reduce blue light exposure and optimise sleep, smart phones should be switched off at least an hour before bedtime. One American optometrist comments that “there is no downside to protection against blue light but there are potential downsides to not doing it”, and he fits blue light blocking filters to all prescription glasses for children. He also strongly recommends non-prescription blue blocking lenses lenses for any child who spends time in front of a screen.

Regular visits to the optometrist to detect any problems early are advisable. If any symptoms of digital eye strain are noted, the optometrist can reinforce parents’ guidelines for healthy smart phone use.