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Just in time for back to school! Protect your kids from digital eye strain.

The new babysitter on the block is the iPad, the cell phone, the Nintendo handheld. We hand them to our kids nearly as soon as our kids can grasp them. And who can blame us? The kids want the devices. They are fascinated and enraptured by them. We even tell ourselves they are educational devices. And it works. Our kids sit quietly in one place and play.

However, we have all seen the effects. The eyes of our children are reddened. They look grimy and glassy instead of bright. Our kids are blinking and rubbing their eyes. They don’t really sleep well. Some, but not all, complain of eye discomfort and strain. Mostly, our kids are unable to clearly articulate their discomfort.

What’s causing this epidemic of red, tired eyes? When a person looks at these devices, a built-in focusing system inside the eye kicks in. Kids have huge amounts of focusing ability – far more than adults do. Kids also tend to hold their devices much closer to their eyes than adults do. Our kids are fascinated by the images on the tiny screens, and holding the device closer makes the images look bigger. The closeness requires huge effort, which taxes the focusing system of the eyes and can cause fatigue and eye strain.

Compounding the problem, our kids play with these devices for hours, never changing their focus point. And because of the rapid pace of many of these games, kids can’t stand to miss a moment of the action, unable to look away long enough even to blink. The reduced blink rate (you should blink once every three seconds!) causes dryness and red eyes.

Finally, the light emitted by the screens on tablets, cell phones and other devices is skewed into the blue range to create brighter-than-life action images. Recent scientific evidence suggests that this range of light can contribute to long-term damage to the retina and the lining of the inside of the eye, and can upset sleep cycles. Do your kids really sleep better when they play with the devices until it is time for lights out?

Our kids have access to these devices nearly from birth, and will be exposed to them for nearly a century. So what can we do to protect the health of our children’s eyes?

Not so close. Remember when we were kids, and our parents would drag us back away from the television screen? We were repeatedly told we were watching TV too closely. You should tell your kids the same thing about their devices. Holding the devices farther away from the eyes means less visual effort is required and there is less fatigue.

Keep work and play to 20-20-20. The 20-20-20 plan works for kids and adults. Work or play on devices or computers for 20 minutes, then look away from the device or computer for 20 seconds at any object 20 feet away. Breaks and flexing or stretching of the focusing system helps to relax the eyes.

Take a break before bed. I recommend no devices a full hour before bedtime. This allows the retina to normalize and reduces the stimulation from harmful, high-energy, blue visible light to allow for better sleep cycles. Your kids will sleep better if they read a paper book (or you read one to them) instead.

With school just around the corner and kids spending more time on computers and tablets, these are good strategies to start implementing. Kids may also require specific glasses for their extended work on electronic devices, which is something that can be reviewed at their annual back to school eye examination.

Donald Matsumoto, OD, FAAO,