The Impact of Virtual Learning On Children’s Vision

Can online learning be harmful to children’s vision and health? When it comes to learning from home, there’s no escaping digital devices. They serve as vital connections to the child’s classroom, teacher and learning environment. As with any useful tools, digital devices can in some cases be “too much of a good thing.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many aspects of our lives are uncertain, including going back to school. Some parents will choose to send their kids to school in person. Others will choose online learning. Others still will elect a blended option, where available.

This new approach to learning is likely to impact children’s lives in many unforeseen ways, including their vision health:

  • More frequent digital learning is bound to cause eye strain.
  • Some children may not have the opportunity to receive the vision screenings they usually receive in school – often creating a referral point for a comprehensive eye exam.
  • Parents may not know what vision problems look like while children are learning at home.
  • With the absence of formalized recess or outdoor sporting activities, children may spend less time in physical activities.

In 2019, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health conducted a study of 109 children and young people aged 11-24 from across the UK and found that these young people spent a significant amount of time on their devices in a given day:

  • 5 hours on computers, laptops and tablets
  • 3 hours on their phones
  • 2 hours watching TV

And that was before online school.

The good news is that vision problems can be corrected, and parents can be a child’s biggest advocate. In this article we’ll provide you with helpful tips to answer some of your most pressing questions:

How can I notice eye strain?

Paying attention to a child’s behavior throughout the day can give a parent useful information to determine if a child has a vision issue. According to All About Vision, children may exhibit one or many of these behaviors if they are having trouble seeing:

  1. Consistently sitting too close to the TV or holding a book too close
  2. Losing their place while reading or using a finger to guide their eyes when reading
  3. Squinting or tilting the head to see better
  4. Frequent eye rubbing
  5. Sensitivity to light and/or excessive tearing
  6. Closing one eye to read, watch TV or see better
  7. Avoiding activities which require near vision, such as reading or homework, or distance vision, such as participating in sports or other recreational activities
  8. Complaining of headaches or tired eyes
  9. Avoiding using a computer, because it “hurts his eyes”
  10. Receiving lower grades than usual

Whether a child is learning from home or in school, monitoring the above behaviors on a consistent basis will be beneficial for the child.

How do I “test” my child’s vision at home?

If you have access to a vision screening through a school nurse, that often may be the first place a child’s vision issue may be identified. In that the absence of school screenings, there are a few online tests that can serve as a first step. The Essilor and WebMD websites are good places to start.

If your child has not had a comprehensive eye exam in the past year or two or if you’ve determined that your child may have a vision issue, it’s important to make an appointment with an eyecare professional. A comprehensive eye exam not only tests a child’s vision, but can also identify other eye abnormalities that can affect vision health and learning in the future.

In many cases, eye doctors have implemented virtual visits. Your doctor may offer these services, so it’s worth checking. If you are concerned about the expense, a number of public and private organizations may be able to help you obtain a free eye exam and affordable eyeglasses.

How can I reduce my child’s exposure to blue light from digital devices?  

One of the reasons that digital devices can put strain on a child’s young eyes is that they may be exposed to too much blue light. You may be interested to know that both the sun and indoor lights emit some level of blue light, but managing the amount of damaging blue light exposure really counts. Certain bands of blue light may be harmful to the retina of the eye over time. So what’s a workable solution?

  • One solution is to buy blue light eyeglasses that reduce the amount of blue light that enters the eyes from computer, tablet and smartphone screens. A number of lens manufacturers produce lenses that filter blue light. Your eye doctor can provide helpful information.
  • Another option is to use blue light screen filters that fit directly over your monitor. If your child is using a phone, you can also try a program like luxwhich is free to use and adjusts screen color according to the time of day.
  • When children go outside, wearing a pair of sunglasses is ideal to protect their eyes from damaging blue and UV light from the sun.

How do I manage my child’s screen time?

It’s important to be realistic about managing your child’s screen time. Screens are an integral part of learning and entertainment and eliminating them completely could affect a child’s overall well-being. It is possible to manage exposure with a few helpful tips:

  • Implement a “no-screens” rule at least an hour or two before their scheduled bedtime to ensure that screen usage does not interfere with a child’s sleep.
  • Set a time limit on your child’s phone use. Apple, Google and other tech companies have recently introduced time management features and apps that allow you to monitor your child’s daily screen time. Visit your phone manufacturer’s website or store to learn more.
  • Monitor your child’s distance from the screen. Some experts suggest positioning device screens based on the 1/2/10 rule: mobile phones ideally at one foot, desktop devices and laptops at two feet, and roughly 10 feet for TV screens depending on the size of the screen.
  • Encourage time outdoors. With warmer weather in full swing, it’s a perfect time to do so. A number of recent studies have found that spending more time outdoors may help prevent or reduce the progression of nearsightedness in children.

With so much else going on, it can be easy for vision health to be put on the backburner. Good vision is an essential tool for our children’s education and social success and can lay a strong foundation for their future. You are your child’s best health advocate – let’s ensure good vision always makes that list!

Encourage more physical activity and outdoor playtime.

Today’s students are less active than ever before. The average 19-year-old is as inactive as the average 60-year-old. This period of quarantine and at-home learning could make it worse. Making sure kids get at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day is a great way to improve their fitness, boost their mental health, improve academic performance and protect their eyesight.

“Physical activity and fitness are important to not only give children a break from computer use, but also to help lessen the ongoing epidemic of obesity and diabetes in our country,” said Dr. Benjamin Willis, Director of Epidemiology at The Cooper Institute and a board-certified ophthalmologist.

Incorporating physical activity into a child’s day is beneficial for whole-child health, especially when access to physical education (P.E.) classes and school sports is halted. The Cooper Institute has compiled a list of free P.E. and at-home fitness resources to keep kids and their families active and healthy.

Additionally, there are many benefits of playing outside. Outdoor play allows children’s eyes to focus over long distances while getting more sunshine for vitamin D production. Physical activity also helps develop cognitive skills while improved fitness can boost academic performance.

The Cooper Institute addressed the need for outdoor play years ago after looking at research that showed a 50% decline over 20 years in the time children spend playing outdoors. Research suggests that outdoor play is helpful for a child’s physical well-being while also slowing down the progression of nearsightedness.

“Maintaining a healthy balance between screen time and exercise will benefit both our vision and general health long after this pandemic threat is over,” said Dr. Willis.


This post is sponsored by The Rosewood Foundation on behalf of the Vision Impact Institute and the Essilor Vision Foundation in an effort to support whole-child health and wellness.  Together with The Cooper Institute, our goal is to raise awareness about the importance of vision screening and fitness assessment in schools to support student success #WELLintothefuture.

Written by Breanna Palmeiro