Causes of Digital Eye Strain in Children and Teens and How to Prevent It

Today, almost everyone has technology and screens woven into at least some part of their lives. This is especially true for children and teens, 85% of whom use devices in their daily lives. Technology has many benefits for these young people, helping them learn in new ways, connect with their peers, and explore the world like no generation before them. However, many parents and childcare professionals are concerned about some of the negative effects of technology on the lives of children and teens, such as cyberbullying, screen addiction, and digital eye strain.

Digital eye strain is a phenomenon that comes about from overuse of digital screens, placing a strain on the eyes and leading to future vision problems. One study has found that children who use technology more often are more likely to need glasses for vision correction than their peers.

Today's parents are responsible for protecting their children from the harmful effects of technology on vision, while ensuring that they are still able to reap the benefits. That protection can take many forms, including special lenses for computer vision, limits on screen time, and reminders about good and bad practices with technology.


What Is Digital Eye Strain?

"Digital eye strain" doesn't refer to any one vision problem. Instead, it is used to describe any sort of problem with a person's eyesight that is related to their use of technology. It can include temporary issues like headaches or dry eyes, but it also includes longer-term vision issues such as blurred vision or near and farsightedness, creating a need for indefinite vision correction through glasses, contacts, or surgery.

What Causes Digital Eye Strain?

Digital eye strain is related to screen use of all sorts. However, some conditions, in particular, are more likely to lead to vision problems:

  • Poor lighting in a computer or other screen area.
  • Glare off of a screen from a strong light source to the sides or behind the subject.
  • Being too close or too far from a screen.
  • Bad posture, which can cause neck, shoulder, and back issues related to computer use.
  • Existing vision problems which are made worse by a user's consistent exposure to digital screens.
  • Ongoing use of screens without breaks for a long period of time.

Eye Strain Symptoms

Children, teens, and adults who experience digital eye strain may report some of the following symptoms:

  • Strained vision;
  • Pain behind the eyes;
  • Headaches;
  • Dryness in the eyes;
  • Red or bloodshot eyes;
  • Blurred vision or difficulty focusing on objects;
  • Neck or shoulder pain, which can indicate long-term exposure to screens and poor posture.

Children and Computer Eye Strain

Most people are exposed to technology in some form or another. However, children may be especially vulnerable to eye and vision problems related to screen use.

Social Media

In 2018, 45% of teenagers said that they were on social media "almost constantly." That's up from 24% in 2014. In general, social media use increases inversely with age, so younger generations are using social media more and more often. Today's social media platforms, including YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram, all require a computer, phone, or tablet. This means that young people who are on these platforms often are constantly being exposed to screens. In addition, features of these platforms, such as videos and endless scrolling, make it difficult for users to look away and get the breaks in digital activity that are critical to avoiding digital eye strain.

Video Games

A 2015 study from Pew Research found that 72% of teenagers played video games of some sort, whether on a computer, a phone, or through a television screen. That number was even higher at 84% when looking specifically at teenage boys.

Video games often require the player to keep their eyes locked on the screen for long periods of time, discouraging breaks for the eyes. Young people who are sucked into an engaging video game may forget good posture or healthy lighting as they play, both risk factors associated with digital eye strain.

Mobile Technology

In 2018, 95% of teenagers had a cell phone of their own or had access to one. Young people often use cell phones to browse the web, play video games, or use social media. Each of these activities is associated with prolonged screen exposure, too much of which can lead to digital eye strain.

Video games often require the player to keep their eyes locked on the screen for long periods of time, discouraging breaks for the eyes. Young people who are sucked into an engaging video game may forget good posture or healthy lighting as they play, both risk factors associated with digital eye strain.

Classroom Technology

Technology has become a popular tool for teachers in the classroom. In a 2018 study concerning technology in the classroom, researchers found that only 42% of schoolwork was being done on paper. The rest, of course, was done using technology. 73% of teachers reported that their students used laptop computers or tablets on a daily basis.

Technology in classrooms opens up new avenues of learning, but it also means that today's young people are being exposed to screens almost constantly. In light of this ongoing exposure, it's important to teach young people about safe usage habits for their computers, phones, and other digital screens.

How to Prevent Eye Strain

Computers and smartphones aren't going anywhere, so it's important for parents and children alike to be aware of the things they can do to prevent digital eye strain and keep their eyes safe while using computers.

The 20/20/20 Rule

The 20/20/20 rule is easy to remember and a great way to keep your eyes comfortable while using screens. According to the rule, for every 20 minutes you spend looking at a screen, you should take a 20-second break to look away at something that is 20 feet. This helps your eyes stay comfortable and keeps you from being sucked into the screen.

Limit Screen Time

Things like social media and video games can be addicting. It's important for parents to set limits on when and for how long children can use technology. Children may be resistant to limits, so make sure that they understand why the limits are important. Over time, these restrictions can help children to form their own good habits about computer and phone usage.

Optimize Lighting

Poor lighting against a bright screen is one of the primary causes behind digital eye strain. Talk to your children about the importance of using technology in well-lit spaces, such as rooms open to sunlight. Whenever possible, children should avoid using computer screens in the dark, such as in bed or in the car at night.

Frequent Eye Exams

An optometrist is the best person to evaluate the effect of technology on your child's vision and recommend countermeasures in case of eye troubles. Take your children in for an eye exam at least every two years, but it's okay to go more often if they are developing vision problems or if you have specific concerns.

Wear the Correct Lenses

Remember that digital eye strain can exacerbate existing problems. Especially for children who are using the wrong kind of glasses lense; wearing improperly fitted glasses; or who aren't using vision correction at all, in spite of needing it. Technology can be both the cause and panacea for digital eye strain - if your children need new lenses for computer use or need help finding new frames, you can always order glasses online.