What causes digital eye strain?

The Vision Council defines digital eye strain as eye discomfort from extended use of screens. That screen time—specifically, more than two hours a day—is causing many classroom learning difficulties for students. And that, in turn, is creating many new challenges for teachers.

Digital eye strain is the next level of visual fatigue that optometrists have long discussed with their patients. But now, it is more than TVs and desktops or sitting under fluorescent lights for too long. Kids have had hours (and years) of access to smartphones, hand-held video game devices, tablets, etc. The Vision Council says that nearly one in four kids spends three hours or more on a digital device. So perhaps it is not a coincidence that nearsightedness has also increased 66% since the 1970s.

What can you do to help?

You already know how to monitor your students’ focus and attention. So that means you are in a great position to spot student vision issues. Here’s what you can do when you see it:

See something, say something. Communicate with parents what you see. No need to diagnose your students. Just say something like, “Jeremiah has been rubbing his eyes a lot lately. Has he had his annual eye exam?”

Encourage eye exams. Only 30% of families say they have talked to an eyecare provider about their kids’ digital habits and eye health. Sometimes parents are embarrassed to admit their kids spend a lot time looking at screens. Whether it is in parent conferences or general communications sent home, get the word out that eye exams are as important as well-child visits.

Set up eye-healthy digital work spaces. Do what you can to make their digital learning environment in your classroom ergonomic. Screens should never be too close and ideally placed a few inches below a student’s eyes. A student’s chair needs to be positioned so that the student’s arms are parallel to the desk surface. The chair should also be adjusted so that the student can keep their feet flat on the floor.

Take screen breaks in class. Depending on what you teach, screens may be an integral part of your curriculum. Eye doctors suggest that teachers use the 20-20-20 rule whenever possible during the school day: Make sure there is a screen break every 20 minutes. Focus on something at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds to lessen digital eye strain.

Go outside for that screen break. Studies show that kids who spend more time outside have a lower risk of nearsightedness.

Talk about good digital habits with your students. Do they recognize changes in their classroom habits after they have spent a weekend screen binging? Do they notice they are more attentive or alert after a day off or time spent without screens? Teaching them to be their own health advocate includes encouraging them to be aware of their digital habits.

Test your digital eye strain knowledge! Does one of your students need an eye exam? This quiz challenges you to spot the signs and shows you how you can help.