Thanks to The Pandemic of 2020, your kids are trying to solve the world's problems--or at least trying to figure out what Shakespeare meant or remember what an obtuse angle is--from the comfort of their home. What could be easier? Going to school without even getting out of your pajamas. Ice cream is literally a handful of steps away. And household pets are enthralled with all the attention.
After days, then weeks, and now months of learning via internet connections, many an eyeball has lost the love of online learning. Why? Let's talk about that.
#1- The Art of Social (Media) Distancing
In a conventional classroom set-up, students are over here, at their desks, and the teacher is over there, in front of the class. But, at home, the student sits at the kitchen table, a desk, or on the sofa. The classroom is no further than his/her/their fingertips.
Okay...? So why does that matter?
What happens to children as they are fed? Like a plant, they grow. And grow and grow and grow. While a child is still growing, they are still developing all sorts of skills and physical habits. Our vision develops and our visual world learns how to respond to our physical world by looking at lots of different things at lots of different distances.
Why? What's the deal with the distances?
Glad you asked. The muscles inside the eyeballs that help us to focus only truly relax when we are looking at least twenty feet away (if our vision needs correction, glasses/contacts would need to be worn). That's what we call optical infinity, a fancy way to say your eyes act the same whether you're looking twenty feet away or looking at the moon. Ever wonder why we use 20/20? Bam! That's why.
So what happens when you focus on something closer than twenty feet away? You start working those sphincter muscles that help you see. The closer you focus, the harder those muscles work.
My dog Benny weighs about 65 pounds. (Stay with me--I actually have a point.) He's sweet and a marshmallow and enjoys giving kisses. If I ask you to hold Benny while you're standing, and to keep holding him for the next, oh, I don't know, maybe four hours, how happy would your arms be holding my Benny boy that whole time? No offense, but I don't think you'd be able to do it. I already know I can't do it.
This is Benny
If I asked you to pull out your phone and look at it for the next four hours, what would your reaction be? Probably "YAY! I have to look up what an obtuse angle is!" But working your focusing muscles to look at your phone is pretty much the same thing as holding my dog, Benny. Both tasks require you to contract muscles and hold them, hold them, hold them.
Why do we notice it while holding Benny and not with our phones?
First, the muscles that help us focus are far stronger, proportionally, than our biceps, so we kind of get away with overusing them. Second, if you overwork the eye muscles long enough, it eventually catches up with you and you do notice that something's not right. Could be headaches, tired eyes, your near vision being in and out of focus, difficulty concentrating on your near work, or even a change in your distance vision.
Remember when I said growing kids are developing visual skills? Imagine if instead of sitting-running-leaping-squatting-climbing-hopping with your legs, you just sort of squatted, and only squatted the entire day. Ridiculous, right? Your muscles develop with a variety of movements and activities. Well, for our eyes, it's even more important, since we perceive our world to a great degree with the information our eyes provide. So if you only use your eyes for short-distance viewing, especially while developing your visual skills, you are limiting your visual development.
Your eyes are meant to look here, there, and everywhere. (If you're thinking of The Beatles right about now, you are of a certain age.) Refocusing to different distances gets those muscles going, so they know what to do. If the eyes spend the majority of their time focusing only at short distances, not only do they get sluggish refocusing to other distances, but those muscles can start to spasm, just like a calf muscle if you're on your tippy-toes too long. And your eyes can start to act more nearsighted than what they really are.
What to do???
With online learning, take those built-in breaks seriously. They should be about moving, running outside, doing something different. Breaks should not be spent looking at a phone screen, a DS, one's fingernails.
For homeschoolers, the teaching parent should find a way to sit or stand on the other side of the room, using an easel with paper or a chalkboard. Your child's educational world should not be smaller than a refrigerator box. Expand it. Go outside or, at the very least, look out the window. Be creative in broadening their educational world.
#2- The Blue Wavelength Effect
For information about blue light rays emitted from screens, look for our next article, How My Phone Makes My Eyes Feel Blue.
But first, what kind of ice cream is in your freezer?
Barbara J. Lee, OD