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  • Dr. Eric Carlsen

Is Too Much Screen Time Causing Your Child’s Headaches?

Young little girl holding head from headache

Managing your child’s screen time has always been a challenge. Most kids these days seem to know how to operate devices from a young age, and those screens can be mesmerizing. It may seem like you’re always battling to limit screen time, and then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. The world as we know it changed, most of us were stuck inside our homes with stay-at-home orders, and those screen time limits became nearly impossible to enforce.

With everyone at home, it got more difficult to stick with healthy screen time limits. Despite surveys showing that 71% of surveyed parents were concerned about kids spending too much time looking at screens before stay-at-home orders, screen time limits became nearly a thing of the past for many families after the pandemic hit. And now, many children are dealing with online learning since schools have turned to remote learning due to COVID-19.

Remote Learning Means More Screen Time

While many school systems have chosen remote learning to protect children and school staff from the coronavirus, it means that kids are now spending even more time looking at a screen. Previous studies showed that by the time kids hit their teens, they’re spending close to seven hours daily looking at a screen, and that doesn’t account for additional time on screens for school.

Instead of classroom interaction in person, kids involved in remote learning interact via a screen, meaning hours a day of screen time. As kids want to interact with friends virtually and enjoy entertainment, that brings about even more screen time. Together, this means that many kids are spending even more time than ever before looking at an electronic screen.

The Link Between Screen Time and Headaches

So, what’s the link between extended screen time and headaches in children? According to Harvard Health, screens and bright lights can trigger migraines in children who are susceptible. However, too much time staring at a phone, iPad, or computer can trigger tension headaches or headaches caused by eye fatigue, as well.

Too much screen time may result in what’s known as digital eye strain, causing symptoms like tired, itching, or burning eyes. Eye strain has the potential to result in headaches centered around the eyes and temples. Without good lighting, kids may look at screens while squinting, and prolonged squinting may tire the muscles and lead to a tension headache. Improper posture while viewing screens may also put a strain on the neck and back, resulting in headaches.

Tips for Preventing Headaches Caused by Electronic Screen Exposure

If your child’s currently going to school remotely, it’s going to be tough to reduce screen time right now. However, you can work with your child to follow a few tips that can prevent headaches caused by electronic screen exposure.

  • Tip #1 – Get Some Distance – According to experts who weighed in with the New York Times, it’s important to keep screens at least an elbow length away from kids’ eyes. Keeping screens too close keeps the eyes focused on the screen instead of allowing them to relax, which can lead to eye fatigue, resulting in headaches or additional vision problems.

  • Tip #2 – Don’t Let Kids Have Electronics in Bed – Failing to get enough sleep can enhance a problem with tired eyes, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you keep screens out of your child’s bedroom, particularly at night, to prevent sleep disruption. It’s also a good idea to have kids turn off screens an hour before they go to bed.

  • Tip #3 – Encourage Breaks – It’s easy for kids to get absorbed in school or in fun and fail to take a break from looking at their screens. According to the American Optometric Association, kids (and parents) need to make sure they look away from their screen every 20 minutes, looking at something that’s 20 feet away for a minimum of 20 seconds. It’s also recommended that kids walk away from a screen for a few minutes each hour, if possible.

  • Tip #4 – Blink Often – Staring at screens can cut your blinking rate in half, according to The New England Journal of Medicine, resulting in dry eyes. Remind your child to blink more often when they’re using a computer, smartphone, or tablet.

  • Tip #5 – Pay Attention to Screen Position – The wrong screen position can result in poor posture, neck strain, and increase eye strain. Position screens at eye level so kids don’t have to bend their necks up or down for optimal viewing.

  • Tip #6 – Optimize Lighting – While kids shouldn’t be using screens in dark rooms, too much light can result in glare and increase eye fatigue. Research from the Journal of Ophthalmology & Research recommends that the lighting in a room where screens are being used should be about half of what you’d use for reading a book or writing. Screens should be positioned so light doesn’t shine directly on the screen.

  • Tip #7 – Don’t Forget Vision Screenings – Regular vision screenings are critical because many kids may not speak up if they’re experiencing the symptoms of eye problems. Make sure your child’s vision is getting checked at every well-child visit. If any problems are detected, your child may be referred to a pediatric ophthalmologist.

Credit: The Will Erwin Headache Foundation


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