Every year, several more-or-less reputable societies get together and select a word of the year. The nominees are usually more trendy than anything else, and reading through a list of them is a little like picking the most viral (and sometimes most annoying) elements out of each year, with winners including “truthiness”, “unfriend”, and “w00t”. The big winner back in 2013? Selfie.
And for good reason. The past decade has seen the rise of smartphone culture in the U.S. Two thirds of Americans now own smartphones, to say nothing of the number that have computers and televisions as well. All those devices stack up to some serious screen time, and while that might be less than healthy for adults, it can be much worse for children. Children and teens are officially recommended to have only around two hours of screen time per day, a number that only around 20 percent of them stick to.
The solution? As everyone’s parents always said: “Go play outside.” Getting outdoors and away from screens is a great way to keep kids healthier. Vision in particular can benefit from some more fresh air. Follow along, and we’ll get into a few of the reasons why your kids’ eye health might be in sore need of a bit of nature.
Catch Some Rays
Myopia, or nearsightedness, is on the rise. While it’s never been rare, American rates have soared over the past decade and show few signs of stopping. The trend is most pronounced in younger people, with some studies pegging the percentage of myopic children at over 28 percent.
Myopia is relatively easy to handle with corrective lenses – or surgery – but it still poses a potentially serious risk to affected kids. The fuzzy distant vision that characterizes nearsightedness can make reading a blackboard or projector a daunting, headache inducing experience in school, and can impact a student’s education. Besides that, myopia can also be a contributing factor to later-life, more serious diseases such as glaucoma.
The causes of myopia are a still somewhat obscure, though most researchers point to a combination of factors, including genetics and reading habits. Some have also posited that spending too much time indoors might play a role. Studies over the last 10 years have shown that enforced outdoor recess periods can reduce the incidence of myopia.
The secret may lie in light, as higher access to daytime outdoors periods proved to be more beneficial to students’ eyes. While the reasons aren’t perfectly understood, it does at least seem clear that curtailing time spent watching movies in the house might considerably boost a child’s chances at avoiding myopia.
Think back to the last time you saw a group of teenagers in public. There’s an excellent chance that you’re currently remembering a silent row of heads, all bent over smartphones. It’s a common enough image to have become a running millenial joke, but there’s a serious problem behind the screen time. Too much time spent shut in with a digital device can damage our eyes mechanically and, it turns out, can even affect the way we process images that we perceive.
In a recent study conducted the University of California, Los Angeles, researchers followed two groups of children. One group was sent to an outdoor education camp and was denied access to smartphones and other devices. The other, a control group, was left to act as they normally did.
Both groups were shown, before and after the trip, a series of photographed human faces showing a range of different expressions to see how well they were able to recognize emotions. The results were dramatic – after only five days away from their devices, the camping group scored significantly better on the test.
While worries that overuse of digital devices can erode social skills are nothing new, it’s still surprising to see how quickly they can change our ability to interact with other people. Booting kids outdoors, while important, might not always be enough. The new boom in smartphone use means that parents will have to take steps to limit screen time away from the house as well – think about helping your child find areas of interest that limit smartphone use. Athletic or outdoors clubs are both great options.
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Tips and Tricks
While we usually leave parenting advice to other blogs, we do have some advice on making sure that children don’t encounter the full effects of excess screen time. First, know your limits – the government recommended maximum screen time for most children is two hours per day. Below the age of two, the daily recommended time is zero.
Take special care to discourage smartphone use before bed. The blue light that the screens emit can wreak havoc on normal sleep cycles, leaving kids groggy and short on rest.
Beyond that, do everything you can to encourage an active, adventurous life at home. School, once a sure place for a child to interact and explore, isn’t quite what it used to be. Recess has been slashed in many schools, and even eliminated in a few, removing some of the outdoor time a student would usually have. Classrooms are also increasingly turning to smartphones and tablets as learning aids. While effective, this practice also means that kids get even more screen time at school. As a result, more of an onus is now on parents to promote healthy practices.
Start with yourself – adopt eye-healthy practices, like taking daily vitamins, and put the computer down when your child comes home from school. Look for hobbies that you can do with your kids that get them away from screens. While settling in to watch a football game is fun, actually playing a short round of pass will pay greater dividends in keeping your child’s vision healthy.