Many people will remember being told not to sit too close to the television in the lounge rooms of their childhoods.
But today’s parents would do well to warn their children not to position themselves too close to small screens, according to optometrist Helen Summers.
She warned that the use of the screens at close range for long periods of time could be leading to a generation of eyesight problems.
“We’re actually facing a tsunami of myopia — short-sightedness,” she told ABC Radio Darwin’s Joel Spry.
“We have four million short-sighted people in Australia at the moment, but by the year 2050 we’re looking at 22 million.”
Researchers have previously found the rise in myopia was not specifically due to devices but to the related issue of decreasing time outdoors.
But Ms Summers said the unwanted effects of increased screen time were vast and that proximity to screens was a factor.
As well as a lack of outdoors time, other causes were poor posture while watching and a lack of eye movement as people stared at screens sometimes for hours at a time.
“We want to embrace technology for our learning, so we have our iPads, electronics and computers in our schools and in our workplace, but when we get home it’s all of that excess – that is our issue,” Ms Summers said.
“It’s the excess when we’re doing social media, lying back on the couch, looking at Netflix on an iPad.”
Ms Summers, who has run an optometry clinic in Darwin since 1998, said the effects of this trend was especially apparent in the classroom.
“We’re also seeing a huge increase in visual stress, light sensitivity, and for our little people, a change impacting on their reading development and learning skills.”
Children most at risk
While screens were playing an increasingly major role in people’s day-to-day lives, Ms Summers said the way they were used had a significant role on their effects.
“Most workplaces will be set up ergonomically,” she said.
“Where you’re sitting, yes, you’ve got lots of screens in front of you but you’re also shifting your gaze; you’re not staring at them.”
At home, it could be a different story – especially for young eyes.
“I know it is a babysitting tool … but we do need to be very careful about how we use it – not for long periods of time,” she said.
“When we’re staring at the screen, they’re staring and they’re not using their accommodation or their focusing skills correctly.
“So when they go to start school, if they’ve been doing a lot of staring at a short distance, it does affect their left-to-right eye movement control.”
Take a break – or a walk
Twenty-twenty is a term most commonly used by optometrists to describe perfect vision, but Ms Summers has begun to use it as shorthand to regulate the way media is consumed on screens.
“If you’re on the iPad for 20 minutes, make sure you’re sitting up and then off for 20 as well,” she said.
“If you’re on the phone, let’s make it 10/10, so if you’re on the phone [for 10 minutes], be off for 10.
“So a lot more breaks; make it less intense.”
An even better option, she said, would be to transfer viewing to a television three metres away in order to interrupt long periods of staring at close objects.
If that’s not possible, you could also hold the screen further away– no closer than a forearm’s distance from your eyes, Ms Summers said.
“Or if you straighten out your arm, halfway between the elbow and the length of your hand, we don’t want it any closer than that.”
And taking breaks to spend time outdoors is an option that has stood the test of time for a reason, she said.
“We need to have those eyes reaching the horizon, not crammed in on a phone and an iPad.”