Guest Post by Dr. Patrick Quaid, Optometrist, FCOVD, PhD
The Irish poet WB Yeats once said that “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”. I would not agree more, our job as parents and educators is to ensure that our children learn to not just regurgitate material, but more importantly learn to critically think and thrive. In essence, our kids should not just “survive”, but should THRIVE both at school and in life.
As a doctor and a father, nothing brings me joy more than my 9-year-old daughter figuring out spelling, reading and math and then “playing with the content” to come to her own conclusions and applying her conclusions to other areas like music, art and history, the latter to figure out “why the world around her is the way it is.”
What has this got to do with technology use – my short answer – a lot!
What impact does screen use have on the brains ability to process visual information? There is nothing in the natural world that makes us look “up close” for such long periods of time and track small symbols from side to side (i.e., reading) like our digital devices do. So, demands that we cannot avoid, in this day in age, including computer and smartphone use – are NOT natural tasks.
Now, to be clear, this does not mean we do not engage in these tasks, but it does mean two things:
- Our visual system must adapt existing visual machinery to do these tasks
- Usually adaptation requires something else to be sacrificed
Humans are the best able to adapt. As the Canadian Psychologist Dr. Donald Hebb once said, “Nerves that fire together, wire together”. I am going to be somewhat daring and tweak this a little – to “nerves that fire together CONSISTENTLY wire together. In other words, if as humans we do something “a lot” and do it the “same way”, eventually the brain will want to wire that way, often permanently. The problem is that this will occur whether the adaption is good or bad.
Let’s use an analogy, imagine for a moment that you are holding a 10lb dumbbell for 20mins. What would happen your bicep? It would be “tensed up” for a long time, right? Ok…now image you take away the dumbbell and must “straighten up your arm”, what happens? Right…the arm takes a while to do it and you must “loosen out the muscle”. Why do we not think that the exact same thing happens with your eye focusing muscles (both inside and around the eyes) when we use screens? Take this one step further – now let’s say we do this for 3, 4, 5, 6 hours with very short breaks? What do you think happens to your distance vision over time? Yes, fluctuations, strain, headaches and eventually…. yes…. adaptation. Problem is that these are often not good adaptations.
We need our eyes to be FLEXIBLE to deal with other tasks in life. Tasks such as driving, catching a ball, copying from a page to a book, tracking when reading, writing all require flexibility. It is this visual skill of “flexibility of eye movement” that is most at risk with excessive screen time.
Current recommendations for screen time for kids from the Canadian Pediatric Society are in the 2-hour range per day between ages 5-17, less than 1-hour between ages 2-5 years old, with no screen time recommended for kids under age 2 years old4.
As parents, and especially over the last two years, we would all likely cringe a little reading those guidelines. Pretty safe to say that this has been “massively exceeded”.
It is time for the term “visual hygiene” to go viral. When we see our dentist, they do a wonderful job of talking about flossing, brushing teeth, and not eating certain foods. When is the last time you heard anyone (including eye doctors) talking about VISUAL hygiene?
Here are some tips to follow for best practices in visual health:
- Follow the CPS (Canadian Pediatric Society) guidelines for screen time.
- Have your child take a digital break every 20minutes for at least 5 minutes and have them look “far” to relax their focusing system.
- If you can “airplay” the screen at near to a TV screen far away on a wall for example, this helps to relax the visual focusing system at least to some degree.
- Have “technology free zones” in the house (i.e., sitting room, dinner table) where devices do not come into that area and have more books in that room, and no TV to encourage reading/conversation.
- Have your child do an eye exam at an Optometry Clinic that has a specialized interest in Vision Therapy. Ask this eye doctor if lenses/glasses would assist, or if there are any existing visual tracking issues that you need to be aware of that will interfere with or worsen with screen overuse.
- Practice a 2:1 ratio of “outdoor activity versus computer time”. So, for example when your child is on a laptop for 30 minutes, have them do something that day outdoors for 60 minutes.
WB Yeats was right – we need to light the fire of education and natural curiosity in our children. However, we need to be aware that technology, although it can be used in many positive ways, can quench this fire much more than we think. When it comes to technology, it is certainly a case of Caveat emptor….buyer beware!
Dr Patrick Quaid, Vue Vision Therapy, Guelph and Toronto, ON www.vuetherapy.ca
Dr. Quaid was born in Ireland, trained as an eye doctor in the UK and did a PhD at the University of Waterloo School of Optometry & Vision Science. Dr. Quaid authored a book, for the public, on the topic of eye teaming issues and learning difficulties in children, titled “Learning to See is Seeing to Learn”, available on Amazon. Dr. Quaid has two clinics and continues to do research and teach in Ontario, Canada. Dr. Quaid and his team at VUE Cubed have a passion for helping children reach their full potential by “teaching brains how to use eyes” more effectively through Optometric Vision Therapy.
- Mangen A. et al (2013). Reading linear texts on paper versus computer screen: Effects on reading comprehension. International Journal of Educational Research, 58, 61-68.
- Lingham et al (2021). Time spent outdoors in childhood in associated with reduced risk of myopia as an adult. Nature Scientific reports, 11, 6337.
- He, M et al (2015). Effect of time spent outdoors at school on the development of myopia among children in China; A randomized clinical trial. JAMA, 314, 1142-1148.
- Canadian Pediatric Society recommendations (cps.ca)
- Vagge A et al (2020). Acute acquired concomitant esotropia from excessive application of near vision during the COVID-19 lockdown. Journal of Pediatric Ophthalmology & Strabismus.
- Accomm -2D and ADHD
- Granet DB (2005). Relationship between Convergence Insufficiency and ADHD. Strabimsus, 13, 163-165.
- Quaid PT & Simpson TL (2013). Graefes Archives of Clinical & Experimental Ophthalmology.