Our eyes are constantly on call every waking minute of every day, from observing passers-by, to reading signage, to gazing out at the horizon. Today, however, it may be more likely that you're staring at a digital display than anything else. From smart phones to laptops to eReaders and beyond, chances are you and your children spend a significant amount of every day in front of a screen. What does that mean for the health of young eyes, and what can parents do to help prevent long term issues?

According to recent studies, children and teens ages 8–18 spend an average of 7 ½ hours a day looking at digital images including computers, smart phones, video games or television. To adapt to this screen-saturated viewing situation, our eyes are becoming increasingly stressed and strained.

Wondering what some of the worst culprits of screen strain are? Here are a few sources of eye stress, and how to help children (and adults!) develop habits for healthy vision.

The Monitor

Viewing a digital display differs significantly from normal paper viewing, especially in terms of how close or far the screen is, as well as its brightness. Kids and adults alike will often catch themselves hunched over their keyboard, nose to nose with their monitor. Not only is this bad for posture, but it wreaks havoc on your eyes. Remember to sit up and away from your computer screen, and try to catch yourself whenever you find yourself leaning in for a closer view. Moreover, be sure the brightness of whatever screen you lock eyes with is uniform with the background brightness of the room. This goes for TV screens as well!  After-dinner tube-watching in complete darkness can be harmful to your vision, especially for young eyes. Moreover, make sure your children aren’t holding their smart phones or gaming devices too close to those eager faces.

Glare

The glossy surface a computer monitor or smart phone screen can be highly reflective. Glare can be harmful to your vision, especially when staring at it for extended periods of time. You can reduce glare with an anti-glare film that can be placed over the screen, or simply by positioning your screen properly to reduce light reflection. While your screen is turned off, angle it so no reflection of light is shown. Make sure the lights in the room are as they would be when you're working on the computer. Especially in kids' rooms, make sure that the area behind the screen is well lit. If you or your child wears glasses while using a computer, you'll probably benefit from a very slight yellow or rose colored tint in the lens.

Room Lighting

Paper is meant to reflect light, but computers generate their own light. Along those lines, lighting a room where your children do homework – both on paper and on a computer – can be challenging because both viewing situations must be accommodated. Try to keep the computer display viewing area separate from where your child works on paper, and use spot lighting to highlight the paperwork. Spot lighting can help keep the light from scattering onto the computer screen and reduce the glare your child looks at.

Computer Glasses

If you or your child wears glasses regularly, the prescription in them is usually designed to help you see better at a distance. However, the presciption required for clear distance vision is probably different from that which makes your eyes most comfortable at 20-25 inches.

The first thing to do is to get annual eye exams. Be sure to tell the doctor that you or your child works on a computer and try to give them as much information about the situation as possible, i.e., working distance, lighting conditions, amount of time spent, symptoms experienced, etc. For children especially, sometimes glasses worn just for up close and computer work can help ease the strain from too many hours staring at the screen.

Taking Care of Your Eyes

There are many things your family can do on its own to reduce eyestrain for everyone while working at the computer, but most important to remember are the "3 Bs": Blink, Breathe and Break.

  • Blink. Blinking is an automatic function. We blink more often when we are excited or stimulated and less frequently during quiet, low energy activities, including reading, working at the computer, and concentrating. These kinds of activities have a tendency to lead to staring. Because it may be easy to slide into a lull of staring during these types of activities, it might take some concentration initially to keep up a normal blink rate while working at a computer or handling a smart phone. But blinking helps keep your eyes moisturized and focused, and is great way to give your stare (not to mention your eyes) a mini break every so often.
  • Breathe. Our breath is our life. When we encounter a stressful situation in most circumstances, we tend to hold our breath. Any child who's taken an exam or given an big presentation in front of the class, can probably tell you the same thing. In addition, sometimes when we are extremely relaxed or deep in thought or concentration, we tend to breathe less. It may seem obvious, but breathing helps keep us alert, focused and relaxed, and keeps oxygen flowing to all of the parts of our body. When working (or playing) in front of a screen, even and steady breathing can relax the eye muscles and help prevent your vision from blurring. Remind you kids when they're in front of a TV screen, a computer screen or any screen for that matter, to breathe! It may seem simple, but it can go a long way.
  • Breaks. With the amount of intense concentration we use doing computer work it's not surprising that we need more breaks. Our eyes were just not designed to be used at that close a distance for long periods of time. As a result, adult and kid eyes alike need all the help they can get. Remember the “20/20/20” rule: Every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds and look 20 feet away. Even if you can't remember the "20/20/20" rule, simply remembering to get up and stretch or look away for a moment to blink and breathe every so often, can work wonders for your eyes. Not to mention your productivity!

There is no one solution to all of the types of problems we encounter with computer and general screen use. Still, although screen time is on the rise, by encouraging healthy habits in kids, the next generation may well be on its way to better eye health. Start seeing your way to a brighter eye future!