Your Child and Computer Vision Syndrome

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As a parent you might often encourage your child to use the computer, perhaps as early as 3 years old. A computer could be seen as a visually demanding toy, along with finger paints and building blocks, that will improve your child's eye-hand co-ordination skills and serve as a good learning aid. But computer use by young children can be a double-edged sword: computer vision syndrome increasingly represents a real danger for young, underdeveloped eyes.

It's ironic, isn't it, that as a parent you know, without good vision, your child can be severely disadvantaged educationally, but the very thing you imagine will help them to learn can damage your child's eyes?

Why do young children run the risk of developing computer vision syndrome? The symptoms associated with the syndrome - red and/or sore eyes, blurriness and eye strain - can be attributed to the young child's under-developed visual system.

The majority of babies are born long-sighted. In the first few months of life a baby develops a more refined near vision, but it is not until the age of eight that a child's vision is fully developed. This is the problem. Computer use places too great a visual demand on the focusing muscles of the child's eyes leading to a greater incidence of myopia (shortsightedness) among young children.

So, you should be aware that too early and too prolonged computer use can contribute to an eyesight defect which traditionally has been seen as an inherited condition. In today's world, where most young children sit in front of a computer screen either at home or at school every day, the good distance vision they were born with is being compromised. It is now recognised that it is a child's learning and play environment, not heredity, which is creating the rapid increase in myopia for this young age group.

What can you do to lessen the impact of computer use on your child's eyesight? Follow the guidelines below and he/she will be spared the distressing symptoms of computer vision syndrome:

* A young child tends to lose track of time when absorbed in activities at the computer screen. Perhaps you yourself are guilty, too, of sitting at the computer for long periods. It is more damaging for your child's eyes,though, to do so. Monitor the time spent sitting in front of the screen and make sure frequent breaks are taken.

* Computer vision syndrome is, as its name implies, a cluster of symptoms associated with heavy computer use. We have looked at the impact on young eyes, but it isn't just the eyes which are affected.

If the workstation area where your child works is not ergonomically sound then problems with neck, shoulder and back pain are likely to arise. These problems can be obviated by making sure that the child looks down slightly to view the screen from the optimal distance of eighteen inches or so, that the keyboard is easily reached and the child's feet rest comfortably on the floor.

* It is important to avoid the risk of children straining their eyes, that the ambient lighting in the room is not too bright. As a rule of thumb, it should be about half that of the computer screen so pull down the blinds and/or avoid harsh lighting in the room itself.

Glare from the monitor can also be a problem for young eyes so it is wise to fit an anti-glare screen for your child's comfort. You should also check that there is a strong contrast between the background and the text, as well as making sure that the text size and color do not cause unnecessary eyestrain.

* Observe your child's behavior closely. Children often accept what we, as adults, would complain about. Even if they are experiencing problems with their vision, children are less likely to consider it abnormal. Excessive eye rubbing, eye redness and a reluctance to use the computer as much as usual can all point to eye fatigue.

* Many parents do not realise that eyesight can be tested from a very early age. Every child should have an eye examination before starting school, but preferably by the age of three. The eye exam should be thorough, and include testing for near and distance vision.

If you think your child may have a problem at a very young age, but you believe that children's eyes cannot be accurately checked until they can read, you should be reassured that several special tests are available for very young children. And remember, unlike many other procedures eye exams are painless!

* Finally, but most importantly, take your child to see a specialist trained to recognise the symptoms of computer vision syndrome in children. A recent study has shown that one in four children who use computers require corrective glasses to enable them to work comfortably and safely in front of the screen.

Under-developed eyes can experience the same sorts of problems as older (40+) eyes when looking from the computer screen to the keyboard and back again. In both cases, the focusing muscles tire more easily.

This is because the monitor is viewed at an intermediate distance- neither near nor far - which is a distance we don't use very often. Specially-designed computer glasses compensate for this by incorporating a larger intermediate viewing zone within the lens and so alleviating the strain on the eye muscles. Eyestrain and blurring are eliminated.

Computer vision syndrome can pose both a short and long-term risk to your child's eyesight. If you follow the advice above you can be sure that you're protecting your child's precious asset.