Computers and Children
by DDR Board Member, Sanford R. Cohen, OD, FCOVD
Computers enrich our lives. Experts, however, are expressing concerns about children‘s computer use. When kids play video games or surf the net, we must address some important health-related issues.
Basic Visual Abilities Necessary for Computer Use
By preschool, children have acquired the basic visual abilities needed for simple computer operation. These abilities include focusing, tracking, fixation, eye-hand coordination and binocularity. They develop as children interact with their environment and integrate visual experiences with other sensations.
When a child has developmental delays, visual abilities are often delayed, too. Delays may also affect trunk, neck and head control; fine motor coordination of the eyes; and sensory integration - all essential for any visual activity.
How Computers Affect Vision
Computer text is comprised of pixels - dots of light that are brighter in the center and progressively dimmer toward the edges. Because pixels lack the sharp edges of printed symbols, they do not provide the contrast that human eyes require for sustained focus. The eyes thus drift and refocus in cycles that are repeated over and over. Repetitive efforts of the focusing mechanism to maintain clarity leads to visual fatigue. Dr. Jane Healy (see article #147) states: "Computer use is even more stressful than book reading in terms of the demands it places on the visual system."
Children - especially those with developmental delays often do not know the difference between normal and abnormal visual experiences. They may not complain of any discomfort. Therefore, parents and teachers must watch for computer-related symptoms, including:
- blurred or double vision
- back and neck aches
- frequent eye rubbing
- head turns or other unusual postures
- trouble seeing the chalkboard and words in books
Guidelines for Children‘s Computer Use
Limit computer use. I recommend a maximum of 40 minutes per day of computer operation for 7- to-11 year-olds. For 4-to-6 year-olds, the recommended total maximum is 20 minutes. To minimize the adverse effects of computer operation, periodic breaks are imperative. After 10 or 15 minutes of use, your child should leave the computer for at least 5 minutes and look outward, through a window or into a large indoor space. Limiting computer operation promotes development of computer skills, because children learn to value their time. It also gives them more time to explore their environment and play physical games, which encourage growth of the whole child.
Encourage stretching. Computer operation and most desk activities are highly restrictive and discourage movement. Arms, legs, necks, shoulders and backs stiffen and fatigue, leading to poor posture. Also, excessive use of the eyes for this concentrated, near vision activity can produce myopia, astigmatism and binocular dysfunctions. Stretching allows the body to release the stress that builds from restriction and repetitive movements.
Adapt the workstation. Bring your child‘s eyes level with the top of the monitor. They should gaze downward at 10 to 15 degrees. Place pillows on the seat and provide a footrest that positions the thighs parallel to the floor.
Avoid bright lights that create glare by shining directly on the monitor. (Before long, liquid crystal displays [LCDs] may replace today‘s monitors and provide stressless viewing.) Use gooseneck table lamps to provide direct light for viewing papers, or indirect light for minimizing glare. If necessary, attach a glare screen or computer hood.
Schedule regular examinations. A developmental optometrist can identify computer-related vision deficiencies by performing near vision tests. The doctor should ask about computer use, the workstation, and any symptoms specific to computer operation. The specialist determines whether glasses will help sustain focus, improve performance, and minimize symptoms and adverse adaptations.
Choose software carefully. Choosing developmentally appropriate games and activities can be challenging. Software packages usually provide insufficient information to visualize how the programs work and can benefit your child. Visit stores where you and your child can play with the games and activities. Ask your child‘s teacher for recommendations. If your child is developmentally 4-to-8, seek programs that require simple responses with the keyboard, mouse or joystick. Content should employ concrete, familiar images and integrate different senses.
As your child approaches the 9-to 11 age level, introduce symbols, abstract figures, reading for meaning, and math concepts. Your child‘s future will probably involve some computer operation. By understanding how computers impact the visual system, you can teach your child proper care of his precious eyes while he learns the wonderful possibilities of computing. (See DDR Booklist for books on vision.)[Initially published in New Developments: Volume 5, Number 4 - Spring, 2000]