A rainy Saturday afternoon. Tour of the mall to finalize back-to-school purchases. It’s obviously busy. I meet a lot of people, including several parents with young children under 2 years old, in strollers. One thing strikes me: all these children have an electronic tablet or a telephone in their hands, as if technology had become the ultimate tool for keeping the child calm.
Read more: Epidemic of myopia among young people: rage on techno!
As an optometrist and expert in eye health, this finding saddens me every time, since I know all the harmful effects that such exposure to electronic tools can have.
And these impacts are all the more crucial during the first years of life, both visually and on the child’s cognitive and social development.
The visual development of the child
The human eye develops through stimulation. The quality of the optical stimulus influences the growth of the eyeball, following a complex and balanced mechanism. At birth, the eye is farsighted, that is to say that its power is not perfectly adjusted to its size. The child sees at a short distance, barely distinguishing a shadow when Grandpa shows up in the bedroom door.
In the first weeks, the eye grows, its retina matures and a balance is established between the growth of the eyeball and the power of the internal lens (the crystalline lens). At 6 months, each of the toddler’s two eyes has the vision of an adult eye. From this moment, the eyes will develop their coordination, in order to generate the vision in 3 dimensions. And it is also from the age of 6 months that communication between the eyes will take place in the visual brain.
Billions of neurological connections will need to be made in the first 8 years of life. It’s a huge, but necessary maturation time, considering that more than a third of the brain’s neurons are dedicated to vision.
A matter of distance
Electronic devices are not, in themselves, a source of visual problems. Rather, it is the inappropriate use of these devices that can hinder the natural development of the eye, as well as reading and learning skills.
The first element to consider is the viewing distance. The eye is designed to look, in near vision, at a distance which is approximately equal to that of the forearm (distance from the elbow to the fingertips of the hand). We are talking about 30 cm for a toddler, and 40 cm for an adult. However, tablets and phones are held on average 20-30 cm from the eye, this distance becoming shorter and shorter with prolonged exposure. The visual effort required to keep a clear image at this distance represents is therefore doubled.
A distance that is too short influences the quality of the retinal image (and therefore visual development) and causes excessive eye fatigue. It should also be understood that when the eye accommodates, the eyes automatically move towards the nose (convergence) in order to focus at the normal reading distance. Too great an accommodative effort is therefore accompanied by greater than normal convergence. As the eye cannot maintain this prolonged effort over a long period, it will relax its effort and the perceived image will become blurred for a moment, a sensory penalty that we want to avoid. After a period of rest, the eye will resume its effort, and this alternation between clarity and blur will take place as long as close attention is required. So, ideally, the tablet or phone should always be kept at forearm distance.
Constant stimulation is not recommended
The use of electronic tools, with games or videos, requires a constant attention span, without breaks; this is the second factor to consider. When the child draws in a notebook or if he reads a paper book, he will instinctively stop at some point, will look elsewhere, in the distance, will be interested in something else around him. These pauses and downtimes are beneficial for the visual system to recover from its exertion. Focusing on distance targets is also beneficial for a child’s visual development. With electronic tablets, it is not uncommon to see children operate sessions of more than 2-3 hours continuously, without looking up from the screen.
For children 0-2 years old, the visual system is simply not developed and robust enough to withstand such stress from constant stimulation in front of the screen. In particular, the structuring elements, namely those of the sclera (deep layer of the eye), which give rigidity to the eye and determine its size, develop between 0 and 2 years of age and then stabilize. The visual stimulus at these ages can interfere with and therefore influence the development of visual defects and pathology at later ages.
It is also worth mentioning that the screen may emit blue light. The eyes of children do not filter these rays like those of an adult. Exposure to blue light is therefore greater in children, which could stimulate myopia and disrupt the secretion of melatonin, which regulates our biological clock. This can disrupt needed naps at this age, as well as nighttime sleep. Sleep loss is also myopic.
Let’s learn about electronics
For normal visual development, it is therefore recommended to avoid all exposure to electronic devices between the ages of 0 and 2 years. With the exception of rare video conversations, under the supervision of a parent, to say hello to a grandparent from a distance, for a few minutes.
From the age of 2, exposure for one hour a day can be envisaged, in particular to consult educational sites, always accompanied by a parent or an educator.
When the visual system is mature, around the age of 6-8 years, exposure can be increased gradually, without exceeding 2 to 3 hours per day, taking 10-minute breaks every hour. Avoid the use of electronic devices during meals, family activities, and at least 1 hour before sleep.
Let’s go play outside!
The best advice that can be given for the successful visual development of a child is to encourage exposure to outdoor light for at least 1 hour a day, ideally 2 hours. We are talking here about playing, walking, and activities that take place outside. The amount of light is then much greater than inside, which would stimulate the production of dopamine, a chemical mediator essential to regulate the growth of the eye. This is the most effective way to prevent the onset of myopia in children.
It is also necessary to ensure that the child’s visual system is normal and that its development occurs naturally. Thus, the first examination at the optometrist should be done at the age of 6 months (to validate that the eye has normal optics and that there is no congenital defect), then at 3 years to evaluate eye coordination. If everything is normal, the next examination will take place at age 5, and annually thereafter, considering that vision can change quickly.
In the event of an anomaly, the earlier one intervenes in the process, the easier it is to restore normal ocular function, either by exercise or by optical means.
By observing these visual hygiene recommendations, we will protect the child’s visual system and ensure normal development.
And let’s not forget that the most beautiful screen in the world is that of nature! Let’s give it more often to our children.