As kids spend more and more time tethered to gadgets—watching YouTube videos on a tablet or blasting tunes through their headphones—experts are worried about the potential harms these devices might be having on their vision and hearing.
Screens and Young Eyes
Whether it’s technology-based or not, so-called near-work, such as reading a textbook or looking at a computer or TV screen up close, can cause the lens of the eye to shift its focus, says K. David Epley, M.D., a clinical spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Over time, this can cause the eyeball itself to lengthen, which can lead to—or worsen—nearsightedness.
While we don’t know how much of the upswing in nearsightedness may be attributable to technology, he says, “it’s becoming more clear that increased use of devices, as well as just increased reading, potentially at close proximity, without some regular break intervals, could lead to that increase.”
See also: Overcoming childhood fears
Technology and Young Ears
Listening to music or other sounds that are too loud for too long has the potential to harm kids’ hearing permanently, say experts. And, “Noise exposure is increasingly common because of all the portable technology, whether it be your phone or your dedicated music listening device or even your computer,” says Paul K. Farrell, Au.D., an associate director of ASHA Audiology practices at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
But the extent of noise-related hearing loss in this group hasn’t been established.
A 2015 report from the World Health Organization estimated that about 1.1 billion teens and young adults were at risk of hearing loss, at least partially due to high sound levels from personal audio devices such as smartphones and iPods, and from noisy rock concerts, sports venues, and nightclubs.
Experts agree that children’s eyes and ears need regular breaks from tech activities. Here, some helpful strategies.
Limit technology (and close work time)
When kids are looking at a screen, follow the 20-20-20 rule: Set a timer for 20 minutes, suggests the AAO, to remind them to look out a window or at an object that’s at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
See also: How to ask kids properly
Use screens properly
Encourage children to adopt good posture when using technology and to keep anything with a screen about 18 to 24 inches away from their eyes. Remind them to blink when looking at a screen and don’t allow them to use computers in brightly lit areas—to help protect against eye strain.
If you want to reduce blue light exposure, note that some devices, such as smartphones and computers, have nighttime settings, which filter out the blue tones from the screen. “It doesn’t completely eliminate blue light exposure,” says Epley, “but it does reduce how much is presented to your brain.”
Turn down the sound
One of the leading causes of hearing loss is exposure to noise. Even a single burst of loud sound, such as a firecracker, can damage the tiny hair cells that line the inner ear, often irreversibly.
If your child can’t hear you when listening to music on headphones or through speakers, reduce the volume. Do the same if they’re wearing headphones and you can hear the music.
Choose the right headphones. Consider noise-canceling headphones for use when kids are listening in noisy environments, such as in a car or on the bus. This may encourage them to use lower volumes since they won’t need to crank it up to drown out outside noise. (In very noisy situations, such as at a rock concert, on an airplane, or near a chainsaw or firearm, make sure they use hearing protection such as earplugs.)
Model good behavior
One of the most important steps, say experts, is adopting safe technology habits yourself. If you do so, youngsters are more likely to treat their own eyes and ears with care.
Know when to get help
Watch for symptoms of eye or ear strain in your kids. Eye strain might cause behavioral changes, such as irritability, aggressiveness, or anger. Kids may also start rubbing their eyes (which may look pinkish), blink a lot, or complain of discomfort, Epley says. Putting stricter limits on their screen time may help. But if problems persist, take them to their doctor.
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