Children’s excessive screen time could cause headaches from eyestrain

Spending too much time staring at a screen, such as a phone, tablet or computer, can cause digital eyestrain, a key trigger in headaches.

Spending too much time staring at a screen, such as a phone, tablet or computer, can cause digital eyestrain, a key trigger in headaches, and with online school and fewer in-person activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, screen time among many children is at an all-time high.

“If your child has developed headaches, it’s important to look at their screen-time use,” said Elizabeth S. Doll, M.D., child neurologist with Norton Children’s Neuroscience Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine. “These headaches could be related to eyestrain, and it’s worth making some habit changes surrounding their digital devices to see if symptoms improve.”

Norton Children’s Neuroscience Institute

The child neurologists at Norton Children’s Neuroscience Institute are leading providers of migraine and headache care for children in Kentucky and Southern Indiana.

Call (502) 588-3650 to learn more.

Parents can help prevent their child’s headaches caused by digital eyestrain with the following tips.

  1. Enact time limits. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under 2 years old, with the exception of video chatting. Kids ages 2 to 5 should have no more than an hour of daily screen time. There are no defined limits for older children, but parents should work with them to set boundaries around daily screen use.
  2. Follow the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break and look at an object at least 20 feet away to reduce eyestrain.
  3. Adjust display settings. Brightness settings should match the brightness of the room or environment, and text size should be increased on devices, so the eyes don’t have to work as hard to focus. Squinting in poor light also may lead to eyestrain headaches. Some devices also have a “night mode” or “dark mode” that can reduce screen brightness.
  4. Follow the 1-2-10 rule for distance. Hold phones 1 foot away; sit 2 feet away from computers; sit 10 feet away from the TV. More time-intensive work, such as schoolwork, should be done on a larger screen, like a computer, instead of a smaller phone screen.
  5. Blink more often. Staring at a screen reduces normal blink rates (15 to 20 times per minute) by more than half. Blinking moistens the eyes and can reduce the feeling of dryness.
  6. Turn off screens before bedtime. Screen time should stop at least an hour before bedtime. Blue light can suppress the production of melatonin, the hormone produced by the brain in response to darkness, and delay sleep cycles.
  7. Consider special glasses. Some ophthalmologists recommend computer glasses with orange lenses, and children who wear prescription glasses can add an anti-reflective coating to their lenses. However, the American Academy of Ophthalmology says “blue light glasses” do not prevent digital eyestrain, as the symptoms are linked to how devices are used, not the blue light coming from them.
  8. Get regular vision screenings. Pediatricians will check a child’s eyes during their annual checkups. If a concern with vision is detected, the child may be referred to a pediatric ophthalmologist or child neurologist.

Symptoms of digital eyestrain include headaches, especially around the eyes and temples, dry, itching or burning eyes, and blurry vision. Poor posture while viewing screens also can cause headaches by straining the neck and back.