Side Effects of Remote Learning

Pediatric eye doctor Jade Price of Wills Eye Hospital examines an adolescent patient. Courtesy Wills Eye Hospital

Given that so many schools are using distance learning during the pandemic, some experts warn that extended screen time coupled with a lack of eye exams at school should keep parents informed about their children’s eyesight.

“Parents should definitely make sure their child’s eyes are examined so a problem can be fixed before it becomes a learning disorder,” said Dr. Kammi Gunton, pediatric ophthalmologist at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In the days leading up to Covid, school nurses performed visual exams. The parents of the young people who failed were given the results. For example, of the 1,992 preschooler through fifth graders tested in the New York City school district, about 1/3 had vision problems, and more older than preschoolers were reported to need a comprehensive eye exam. At the time of the test, 8% of all children were wearing glasses.

This study was done 10 years ago. Studies now done on children’s visual problems show increases in myopia or the ability to see up close but not far. A 2020 study found that 42% of teenagers in North America were nearsighted. Risk factors include inheriting the problem from parents, less time outdoors, and more time in front of a screen. Unattended myopia can lead to glaucoma, retinal detachment, and cataracts.

Most of the children who will go to school via distance learning this year will not get these in-school eye exams.

But there are lucky ones. Some districts, such as Williamsport, Pennsylvania, have established clinics to provide eye exams for local children at a time when many children attend remote school.

The new classroom

Screens are built into the structure of remote learning. Students must rely on computers, electronic tablets, and cell phones to attend classes and complete schoolwork.

“We’re all new to this level of online learning, and there can be a bit more eye strain with a child doing mostly computer,” said Dr. Gunton. “We have to be sure that we are listening to our children and watching their behavior to see if we notice when they are having problems.”

But there probably won’t be any serious eye problems. “There is no scientific evidence that studying online or using computers will harm your eyes,” said Dr. Gunton. What children might experience during distance learning is eye strain, not eye damage, she said.

What to Look for – If a child flashes more than usual, feels tired, rubs their eyes, or complains of a headache, eye strain may occur.

“And when a child says that the words on the computer screen are blurry or that they can’t finish their work because they can’t see well enough, those are obviously red flags,” said Dr. Gunton.

According to Dr. Gunton parents can help reduce eye strain on their children by adjusting the brightness of the screen for easy viewing and by making sure the child’s workspace is well-lit – children should never be in the dark sit computer.

Dr. Gunton said she doesn’t recommend blue-light glasses that filter the blue light emitted by computer and phone screens. Blue light is brighter than other types of light and is viewed by some as disruptive to the sleep cycle and eye strain.

“Blue light glasses really haven’t proven to be helpful or preventive against eye diseases,” she said. Instead, Dr. Gunton made computer glasses available to some of her patients.

“These are glasses with a slight magnification so that the children don’t have to focus as much near vision,” she said. “For some kids, it really helps.”

Some of her other pediatric patients had problems with their pupil alignment. Dr. Gunton said she adjusts these kids’ glasses to align their eyes when they are at the computer.

“It’s very specific to certain needs, however,” she said. “It’s not for everyone.”

Dr. Gunton said parents should discuss their child’s specific situation with an ophthalmologist. Parents should see what free resources are available in their area or make sure their child’s eyes are checked by their pediatrician or ophthalmologist.

“Don’t just do a routine eye exam if you notice any problems,” she said. “Really talk about the situation with them. For example, say, “We are at the computer five hours a day. Here are some of the symptoms I noticed. Are there any things that would be particularly helpful for my child? ‘”