Children’s excessive screen time can cause headaches from digital 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.

Is too much screen time causing your child’s headaches? It’s very possible. Excessive screen time is a common issue among children today, and it can cause digital 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. Although it may seem difficult to enact healthy screen time limits — our society, especially kids, tunes into technology nearly all day, between tablets, laptops, smartphones and TVs — it could make a big difference in reducing the frequency of your child’s headaches.

You may have heard about digital eyestrain by some of its other names, such as computer vision syndrome or eyestrain headaches. Either way, the culprit is the same: excessive time, usually hours upon hours, spent staring at screens — sometimes without taking a break! The eyes feel tired or sore, dry and itchy, and vision might even appear blurry. Headaches are common, along with an aching neck, back or shoulders.

This article will help you understand how excessive screen time is contributing to your child’s headaches, share healthy tips and lifestyle changes to reduce digital eyestrain, and give an overview of possible treatments to reduce your child’s eyestrain headaches.

Start with your pediatrician for migraine care

If you suspect your child experiences migraine headaches, book an appointment online with your pediatrician.

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Can too much screen time cause headaches?

Excessive screen time can trigger or exacerbate headaches. When the eyes stare at an object for too long, this strains the eyes. Combining this with the bright lights and blue lights associated with screens, it can be a recipe for a digital eyestrain headache or migraine. Many children are spending hours on their devices, and this places strain on the eyes. Just like any other muscle or body part, they need proper rest after being in use.

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

In addition to the eyes feeling sore, children can experience different types of headaches related to digital eyestrain.

Tension headaches are a more mild type of headache that may feel like a band is around the head. It usually involves a dull ache and pressure that can appear in different parts of the head, such as the forehead, sides or back of the head.

Migraine headaches also can be triggered by excessive screen time. Migraine is associated with more severe pain that may be felt on one or both sides of the head. Stronger pain and throbbing is associated with migraine, compared with a tension headache.

How to spot headaches caused by digital eyestrain

Symptoms of digital eyestrain include:

  • Headaches, especially around the eyes and temples
  • Dry, itching or burning eyes, and blurry vision

Digital devices, including computers, tablets and smartphones can cause eyestrain for a variety of reasons. Screen brightness plus blue light exposure is a common cause of headaches. A bright screen in contrast with different lighting in a room or environment can strain the eyes. The screen brightness settings should be adjusted to be closer to the lighting of a room. Too much exposure to blue light, which emits from screens, can cause digital eyestrain. Blue light wavelengths, which put stress on the eyes, are common migraine triggers, according to researchers. Poor posture while viewing screens also can cause headaches by straining the neck and back.

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Tips for preventing headaches caused by digital eyestrain

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

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Check posture. Slumping over to stare at a screen can cause headaches, as can “text neck,” which is caused by having one’s head in a down position to look at a smartphone for an excessive amount of time. Ensure screens are at eye level, and sit upright, with the neck and back aligned, to help reduce the likelihood of head and neck strain that can cause headaches and exacerbate symptoms of digital eyestrain.
  • 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.
  • Consider special glasses. Some ophthalmologists recommend computer glasses with amber or rose 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.
  • 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 pediatric neurologist.

Available treatments for an eyestrain headaches

The best and most reliable way to treat and prevent digital eyestrain headaches involves making lifestyle changes, which are outlined in the tips above. However, some other minor treatments that may provide relief for a child’s digital eyestrain headaches include:

Wear glasses. This may include prescription glasses or computer glasses.
Rest your eyes. Take a break from the screen. Resting your eyes for a few moments can help.
Use eye drops. Artificial tears may help with the eye dryness associated with digital eyestrain.
Take a pain reliever. Over-the-counter medication, such as ibuprofen, can offer relief when a digital eyestrain headache hits.
Eye relaxation techniques. This includes blinking more often, taking a break to look at objects that are farther away, covering the eyes and looking in the darkness, and occasionally moving the eyes back and forth and up and down.
Form new habits. These tips for preventing headaches caused by digital eyestrain are provided in the section above.

Next steps

If your child is experiencing persistent and severe headaches, reach out to their pediatrician. Pediatricians can begin treatment for migraine headaches. If their headaches worsen or do not improve, they may be referred to a neurologist for additional treatment. If your child is experiencing a sudden, severe headache that is accompanied with confusion or trouble walking, visit an emergency room.

Even though we live in a world where technology is everywhere: texting to communicate, playing video games to relax or socialize, and even completing required homework on a computer — it’s still important to manage a child’s screen time to help prevent headaches and other health concerns associated with digital eyestrain. Your child will be able to learn better when they aren’t dealing with the pain and annoyances caused by digital eyestrain.