7 Year old at her yearly comprehensive eye exam

Here in New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy has proclaimed August Children’s Vision and Learning Month, bringing needed focus to the issue of comprehensive eye exams for kids. The timing of this proclamation is noteworthy as many parents are preparing their children for the return to school. The message: When you’re checking off the boxes on new supplies, new school clothes, and sports physicals, make sure you’ve got an eye doctor appointment on that list as well.

In a 2021 study published in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology, researchers found that children ages six to eight were three times more likely to have nearsightedness during the pandemic than in the previous five years. Blame the extra screen time doled out during lockdown or the screens used to deliver a virtual school day but either way, our kids are using their eyes far differently than Gen Z and older Millennials ever did at their age.

“I think the biggest risk screens pose to vision is the increased risk of various visual developmental disorders,” says Dr. Noah Tannen, optometric physician at Eye Care Professionals in Hamilton, NJ. “The longer we strain our eyes on a near visual object, like a phone or tablet, the more likely we will develop disorders of eye teaming, eye focusing, and eye tracking.”

According to Dr. Tannen, research is finding that the months spent in quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated myopia development – otherwise known as nearsightedness- in adolescents. While he doesn’t blame blue light, specifically, for the spike in myopic teens and tweens, he does cite the addictive nature of the technology leading to headaches, blurry vision, double vision, eye strain, dry eyes, and reduced academic performance.

So, what’s a parent to do?

Dr. Tannen says it starts with a conversation and modeling healthy behaviors.

“This seems to be a perpetual point of contention between parents and children,” he says. “Help them make more responsible decisions by having an open and honest discussion about the effects of too much screen time. Teach them how to cultivate healthy habits, and of course, lead by example.”

Putting your phone away at mealtimes and previous to bedtime is a good place to start. But there are additional steps you can take to promote healthy eyes and vision.

When working in front of a screen, adults and children alike should follow the 20-20-20 rule (take a 20 second break every 20 minutes, and focus your eyes on something 20 feet away), maintain the proper working distance from the screen, and make sure good posture is being practiced.

In your free time, Dr. Tannen recommends going outdoors where you’re not only completely removed from digital temptations, but are also experiencing the benefits of the sun!

“Many people don’t realize that ocular development is largely regulated by the sun,” says Dr. Tannen. “The intensity of the light and full-spectrum of wavelengths generates signals in the eye that minimizes the development of myopia – this is why the cavemen and ancient Greeks never needed glasses!”

Getting the kids outdoors for just two hours a day can make a huge difference in the overall health of eyes and vision and to help curb the disturbing trend scientists are seeing in increased rates of myopia. Their prediction: by 2050, half of the world’s population (approximately 5 Billion people) will be nearsighted.

Make the appointment.

Taking your child to see your local optometric physician is another step parents can take to make sure kids are heading back to school without a vision issue that could potentially interfere with their learning experience.

Vision screenings with the school nurse or even at the pediatrician’s office are often insufficient as they typically only assess visual acuity (how clearly a child can see in the distance) and don’t address whether or not a child is visually ready for the classroom or online learning.

According to Dr. Tannen, “Even if a child is not complaining, there may be an underlying binocular vision, eye focusing, or visual perceptual deficiency. Many children with these disorders simply avoid the visual task instead of complaining, or do not meet expectations in school.”

Instead of letting these issues snowball over time, schedule a comprehensive eye exam with a doctor of optometry and make it a part of your back-to-school routine. New Jersey resident’s have a great tool at their fingertips to help locate an optometrist if your family doesn’t already have one. Just plug in your zip code, here, and make an appointment!

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Dr. Noah Tannen is an optometric physician at Eye Care Professionals in Hamilton, NJ. He completed his residency in pediatrics, vision therapy, and neuro-optometric rehabilitation at Pennsylvania College of Optometry at Salus University. He received a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Lafayette College, and then went on to receive his Doctor of Optometry degree from State University of New York College of Optometry. He is a fellow of both the American Academy of Optometry and the College of Optometrists in Vision Development. www.eyecareprofessionals.com