Why Parents Don't Need to Buy Into the Blue-Light-Blocking Glasses Trend
My kid's daily screen time has jumped from roughly 20 minutes per day to upward of three or four hours, a frustrating turn of events following years of being told by pediatricians and child-psychology experts to limit my child's exposure to TVs, iPads, laptops, and cell phones like it was akin to hand, foot, and mouth disease.
There's simply no disputing the fact that, despite schools around the nation using screens to run their classrooms, the medium is a dangerous one for kids of all ages. Nevermind developmental issues that stem from prolonged screen time (researchers report that it is linked to poorer progress in communication skills like expressive speech, problem solving, and social interactions among young children over time), there are the potential physical effects, too. Excessive screen time can cause eye strain, headaches, blurry vision, bad posture, dry eyes, difficulty sleeping . . . the list goes on.
I've noticed a sudden trend of parents buying expensive "computer glasses," otherwise known as blue-light-blocking glasses, to combat the blue-light wavelengths that are emitted from digital screens.
And to combat many of those problematic side effects, I've noticed a sudden trend of parents buying expensive "computer glasses," otherwise known as blue-light-blocking glasses, to combat the apparent shorter, blue-light wavelengths that are emitted from digital screens.
I've seen these glasses on the market for years, and I even splurged on a pair for myself a few years ago when I was starting to get midday headaches. They didn't make much of a difference, at least nothing beyond a placebo effect, so I stopped wearing them, and I never considered paying top dollar for kid versions until now.
Once hard to find, the demand for child-size versions of these specs is exploding. It now takes two clicks on Instagram to order a pair of brightly colored nonprescription frames. But do they really make a difference, and are they worth the expense when parents are already strapped financially thin? Or is this another case of "do what's best for your child" fearmongering? The answer isn't as straightforward as I'd like, but after digging into the research and speaking to several eye experts, including my child's own ophthalmologist, I know whether or not I'll be buying them for my child — and what other techniques I can use, free of charge, to help offset the physical strain caused by screens.
Are Blue Lights Really Bad For Your Children's Eyes?
It's easy to see why parents may feel the need to buy blue-light-blocking glasses or fancy screen protection covers. Contradictory advice often drives parents to take the path of extreme caution, and scientific jargon can leave them feeling confused. For instance, research in medical journals alludes to how these shorter light waves pass through the cornea and lens, but what does that really mean?
Dr. Scott Edmonds, an optometrist, told POPSUGAR that children's "still-developing eyes generally allow for more high-energy blue light to reach — and potentially damage — their retinas" and that excessive blue-light emissions "may produce oxidative and phytotoxic damage to cells in the cornea and retina of the eye."
He also noted a study published in BMJ Open Ophthalmology that computer-specific glasses with progressive lenses may help people maintain eye health. But even that study acknowledged a lack of "strong evidence" that what is potential correlation between blue light and eye strain is the same as causation.
"There's no scientific evidence to suggest that blue light from our screens or devices are damaging our eyes or our children's eyes. That's why the American Academy of Opthalmology does not recommend blue-light-blocking computer glasses."
In fact, Edmonds noted that blue light — which is said to keep people alert — isn't only emitted via screens. Blue light is, frankly, everywhere. It's in LED and fluorescent lighting, and most notably, it's sourced from the sun. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), people get 10 times as much blue light from the sun during any given day as they do from a computer screen.
"While exposure to blue light from the sun during the day is normal, the heath concern is from increased exposure to digital displays, especially during the evening," Edmonds said.
According to Dr. Purnima Patel, that very factor — the use of screens in the evening hours — is the actual source of harm with regard to blue lights, not eye damage. (Patel is the clinical spokesperson for the AAO, and she noted that ophthalmologists are actual medical doctors who specialize in eye and vision care.)
"Blue light is associated with and contributes to our body's circadian rhythm — our natural waking up and sleeping cycle," Patel told POPSUGAR. "Blue light, especially for people looking at their iPads or phones at night in bed, can disrupt their ability to sleep. From a circadian rhythm standpoint, it does have an effect. We do not think it is damaging their eyes."
She believes this is why there is so much conflicting evidence about the root of blue light's harm.
"There's no scientific evidence to suggest that blue light from our screens or devices are damaging our eyes or our children's eyes," she said, a statement for which my child's eye doctor adamantly concurred. "That's why the American Academy of Opthalmology does not recommend blue-light-blocking computer glasses."
Then Why Do Screens Cause Eye-Strain Issues in Children?
So if blue-light exposure isn't an issue, and if we aren't letting our kids watch the iPad at bedtime, why is there still universal concern that screens cause what the ophthalmology community calls "visible eye strain"?
Patel points to increasing rates of myopia, otherwise known as nearsightedness, worldwide.
"There is a genetic component to nearsightedness, but there is increasing evidence that there's an environmental component as well, and more and more studies are showing fast-rising numbers of myopia in children."
"There is a genetic component to nearsightedness, but there is increasing evidence that there's an environmental component as well, and more and more studies are showing fast-rising numbers of myopia in children, especially in Asian countries," she said. "They're linking it to this rise in doing 'near work.' In the evolution of humans, we've transitioned from doing more agrarian work to this industrialized work that all takes place at 'near.' We're looking at computer screens, we're filling out forms. A lot of our work is all done at this level versus centuries ago when people were farmers working more in the distance."
Further, "far work" is easier on eyes, whereas one's eyes have to work harder to see anything at the near level, which is generally less than arm's length.
Considering that 80 percent of what children learn is visual — versus, say, auditory or tactile — and that this past decade has seen an ever-increasing allotment of daily screen time for toddlers and young children, it's not surprising that more and more children are developing the common symptoms associated with myopia, namely blurry vision, dry eyes, and headaches.
"These are the more common symptoms people experience from just staring at the screen for longer than we're used to, especially our children," Patel said.
What Can Children Do to Limit Eye Strain While Using Screens?
Obviously, limiting screen time is the most effective solution to limit visible eye strain and the risk of developing myopia, but even if I cut my child's school day in half, she's still exceeding the official American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that young children ages 2 to 5 should have no more than one hour of screen time per day.
What else can parents do? Patel and Edmonds offered a handful of techniques that, if they become habitual, may make a sizable difference in eye health.
Take Breaks Using the 20-20-20 Rule
Frequent eye breaks, even short ones, are greatly encouraged when doing consistent near work so children are able to relax their eye muscles and provide ocular accommodation, otherwise known as the ability for eyes to appropriately adjust focus to a specific distance. Without breaks among hours-long near-work sessions, these ocular muscles, like any other in the body, will fatigue.
Patel suggested the 20-20-20 rule, which means that every 20 minutes, children (and adults, for that matter) should take a 20-second break by looking off into the distance approximately 20 feet away. This rule obviously applies when spending time in front of a screen, but it actually is important for any work within an arm's length, whether it's working with math problems, reading a book, or studying flash cards.
"For kids, it's hard for them to know the distance, so it's you telling them, 'Look out the window' or 'look down the hall,'" Patel suggested. I found that playing a game of I Spy out the window was a more engaging way of achieving this break than suggesting my child look at the trees.
Patel recognizes it might not be feasible for parents to monitor their kid's day in 20-minute increments. "It's a lot of stress for parents," she said. "Like, 'Do I need to referee the entire virtual school situation?'"
Patel suggests teaching children how to apply the rule themselves. Start by setting a kitchen timer or setting up a home device like Alexa with ongoing timers. For older children, remind them of certain clock markers, like 9:15, 9:35, 9:55, and so on. "Also, if they are reading a book, get them in the habit of taking this break every two chapters, or however long it takes them to read for 20 minutes. If it's an actual book, use paper clips throughout the pages to denote when to take breaks — something to help the child remember."
Spend Time Outside Daily
It's not just looking outside that is important to eye health, it's also being outside.
"When they're physically outdoors, they're not having to use all their eye muscles to see at near," Patel said. "They can focus on the distance naturally. That's another reason outdoor play is healthier for children, even from an eye standpoint. The outdoors lend itself to looking far away more than indoor play."
Edmonds acknowledges the increased amount of instructional screen time required of children and tasks parents with guiding children during off hours toward this type of outdoor leisure time versus, say, a movie night. "Awareness of overall screen time is important," he said.
Limit Screens Before Bedtime
Because it is apparent that a side effect of blue-light exposure is a negative effect on sleep, mitigating screens before naps and bedtime is crucial. "Parents should consider limiting children from using digital displays at least two hours before bedtime," Edmonds said. "This is the time when blue light may disrupt resting patterns by limiting the release of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep."
Create an Ideal Ergonomic Setting For Screentime
Breaks from screens aside, there are also healthier ways to interact with screens themselves. For example, a major red flag for Patel is seeing kids looking at a laptop or other device closer to where they would hold a book.
The AAO generally recommends keeping devices at arm's length, approximately 18 to 24 inches from where the child is sitting, and Edmonds advises a 30-inch minimum distance. The academy's guidelines also suggest the use of a stand-alone monitor or that devices be raised up from the desk to eye level — essential for ergonomic support of the neck and back. "Put the computer on books to lift it a few inches up," Patel said.
She also suggested adjusting settings on devices to change the brightness and contrast levels.
"We've all experienced how it's harder to look at our computer screen in light situations, when we're sitting outside, that there's a glare," she said. "Keeping the screen less bright and paying attention to ambient lighting is important so that they don't have the light source shining bright on their computer. As long as they can see it comfortably . . . we're not trying to make it impossible to see, but it varies throughout the day and they should be able to adjust it all the time as needed. So show your child as they start virtual school, like, 'Hey, this is how we adjust it.'"
Get an Eye Exam Earlier Than You'd Think
"A child's first comprehensive eye exam should occur between 6 months and 12 months, again at age 3, and before entering school at age 5 or 6," Edmonds said. "It's important to remember that a school's vision screening is not a substitute for this exam. School screenings usually focus on measuring acuity levels and might miss common conditions such as poor eye alignment, focusing problems, and farsightedness." My pediatric ophthalmologist noted that a lot of preventable vision issues solidify by the time a child turns 7 years old, and if unaddressed until then, they may become permanent.
Take a Holistic Approach to Eye Care
Overall, the management of digital eye strain should include a holistic approach that employs multiple strategies, from regular eye breaks and outdoor play to the management of dry eyes and attention paid to potential warning signs of eye issues.
"Sometimes children may not be aware and won't complain if their vision isn't normal," Edmonds said. "Red flags may include squinting while reading or watching TV or discomfort or dizziness while watching 3D movies."
To Edmonds, this holistic approach can include blue-light-blocking technology, like add-on screen protectors and even glasses. Of course, Patel and the AAO make it clear this is merely to offer that placebo effect. If you'll feel better having your child wear blue-light-blocking glasses during their third hour of onscreen school, those brightly colored frames won't hurt them. But, Patel emphatically reminded, there is no proof that they help.