Digital devices and your child’s visual development

Digital technology has become a fundamental part of our children’s day, both at home and in the classroom. Many schools already rely heavily on tablets, digital white boards and computer simulations. Advances in digital technology definitely opens a whole new world of learning for students, but the effect of prolonged screen use on developments should be considered.

Digital devices are still relatively new and therefore the effects on developing visual systems are still undetermined. Children born in the 21st century (Generation Alpha) have had access to digital devices their whole lives. Generation Alpha also spends more time indoors than any other generation before. Studies suggest that increased time spent on digital screens and lack of exposure to sunlight can increase the risk of myopia, or nearsightedness, development in primary school scholars.

Digital screen give off high energy blue and violet light which may prematurely age the eyes.  The effects of blue light is cumulative in the eyes, thus overexposure at a young age can lead to serious sight-threatening conditions in later life, such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Children are more susceptible to computer vision syndrome (digital eye strain).

Signs and symptoms of digital eye strain include:

  • Burning, itchy or tired eyes
  • Frequent headaches
  • Complains of blurred vision, double vision or loss of focus
  • Neck pain
  • Fatigue
  • Sensitivity to light

Children should have regular visual checks with a behavioural optometrist. I recommend an eye examination at age 6 months, age 3 years and annually thereafter.

We should also consider the effects of digital devices on your child’s visual perceptual and visual motor skills development.

This toy was a common toy in many households. It requires the child to pick up and feel the blocks. Younger children might even put some blocks in their mouths. A child might even shake the toy, kick it or throw it around. The child must judge the shape and size of the block and then judge the distance to the toy (depth perception).  Thus this toy integrated several senses and assisted in fine motor control, visual perception and visual motor skills development.

Consider the same game, but on a digital screen. The child will use one finger to drag the shape into the appropriate hole. The difference in motor and sensory development is obvious. The ability to integrate the visual processing skills with fine motor movement is lost in the process. The child does also not acquire any spatial knowledge, depth perception skills or muscular strength.

Guidelines for digital device use

Children have limited self-awareness which lets them stay focused on a fun task, such as an entertaining game, until near exhaustion. I recommend that a child should not spend more than 20 minutes at a time on a near screen.

Your child should sit at least 40cm from a handheld screen and 60cm from a computer screen. If the screen is held to close it strains the focus system which can lead to double vision or blurred vision. Ensure that there is no glare on the screen from an artificial light source or a window.

If your child already wears glasses, I recommend a blue-light filtering layer on the lenses. There are various options available, but the aim is to reduce glare and harmful blue-light exposure to the visual system.

Lastly, always encourage free play over digital screens. Encourage a mix of tasks during the day; children should take part in activities that involve physical movement and postural changes.