RICHMOND, Va. -- As thousands of Central Virginia students return to school this week for the new academic year, pediatricians are warning against prolonged screen time in and out of the classroom.
"More children are having nearsightedness and that nearsightedness seems to be increasing in the degree, or the amplitude, or how bad their nearsightedness is," Dr. Evan Silverstein, a pediatric ophthalmologist with the Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU, said. "Children can develop early nearsightedness and that can progress rapidly if they do not balance the inside time and the computer or tablet time with good outdoor activities."
Silverstein said balancing time online prevents vision changes, encouraging students learning online to use what he calls the "20-20-20 Rule."
"Every 20 minutes that a child is on a device, they take a 20-second break and look 20 feet away. Trying to keep their device two feet away from their face so they're not constantly straining to see really close up front," he said.
Silverstein said his practice works with Richmond Public Schools to host free screenings and prescriptions. He said oftentimes, parents may be unaware of what those screenings may find, or what behaviors their child may be displaying that could be considered a "red flag" for vision changes.
"If a child is closing one eye when trying to read or trying to look at something up close, if you see any eye where one eye is turning in and the other eye is straight, or the eyes are drifting outward, they're squinting a lot, turning their head, that may be an indication that a child may need glasses," Silverstein said.
Dr. Bergen Nelson, an associate professor of pediatrics at the hospital, said too much time with technology can disrupt students' sleep, which could cause students to have trouble focusing in class.
"Two hours before you want to be asleep, you should not have any screens in front of your eyes because that blue light affects your melatonin cycle and makes your brain think it's daytime, even though it's time to go to bed," Nelson said.
Nelson is encouraging parents to limit their children's screen time to school-related activities and spend time outdoors after school.
She's also encouraging parents to catch up on doctor's appointments and vaccinations, many of which may have been delayed because of the pandemic.
“We did see [some] people getting behind in terms of their normal well-child visits and vaccinations during COVID, so I think catching up on all of those and making sure you’re up to date, getting a physical, seeing the dentist, all of the things we recommend doing in terms of preventative healthcare, definitely apply and we sort of have to double down on those," she said.
Most school districts in the area no longer require masks for students.
Richmond Public Schools is requiring masks for now but said it would revisit the matter based on CDC guidance. Parents can opt-out of their child masking via email request.
Nelson said while COVID-19 mitigation strategies have become more relaxed, the virus will continue to impact students, staff, and families.
"We know that COVID is still very much out there. Rates of transmission are steady, they’re not going down as we had hoped and there are new variants coming up, so it’s certainly throwing wrenches in our plans in terms of having a totally normal year," Nelson said. "I think we know that masks are effective in terms of limiting transmission, especially if everybody in the classroom is wearing a mask. I would encourage it, but I understand that some parents may not want that.”
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