During winter break, most children and teenagers are going to have more screen time than usual - meaning they'll be spending their time looking at computer screens, television screens, movie theater screens and cell phone screens. This fact leaves many adults wondering how all that screen time affects vision in children.

A new study reported in the Archives of Ophthalmology compares the rates of myopia (nearsightedness) in the U.S. back in the years 1971-1972 with newer statistics gathered between 1999 and 2004. The researchers found myopia was more common from 1999-2004 than it was in the early 1970s - the rate of myopia increased 66.4 percent in just 30 years.

This National Eye Institute study didn't show why rates of myopia are rising, but researchers in other countries have found "near work" can contribute to myopia. Near work means focusing on objects close by, which includes looking at television and other screens as well as reading and other activities that require focusing on objects less than a few feet away.

Some studies show the risk of myopia is lower in children who spend a lot of time outdoors. The theory is exposure to natural light and plenty of time spent focusing on things in the far distance may protect children from developing myopia.

A study of 12-year-olds in Australia found nearsighted children were more likely to spend lots of time doing near work and had low levels of outdoor activity.

In Singapore, myopia is considered a rapidly worsening public health problem. More than 80 percent of 18-year-old males are nearsighted, a much higher percentage compared with past generations. Singaporean researchers think myopia is related to the large amount of time children spend reading and looking at screens.

So, although there is no definitive evidence that proves screen time damages children's vision, there are plenty of other reasons to limit screen time to one or two hours a day.

Screen time can be high quality - educational programming on television and educational computer games do exist. But, most children are spending time with low-quality programming or games that negatively affect their mental, physical and social development.

Childhood obesity is more likely in kids who spend many of their waking hours playing video games, watching television and spending time on the computer.

A variety of researchers have found children who watch television for more than two hours a day are more likely to:

? do poorly in school,

? have sleep problems,

? be depressed and

? start smoking.

Many television shows - even those made for children - contain violence, with an average of 14.1 violent acts per hour.

Perhaps the best thing you can do for your children is to help them find alternatives to screen time. Televisions do not belong in children's bedrooms; toys, books and non-video games do.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children under age 2 years do not watch television at all and older children should be limited to one or two hours of quality programs per day.

Limiting screen time may or may not help a child's vision, but will definitely help a child's brain develop more fully.

Kathryn B. Brown worked as a registered nurse and a family nurse practitioner before coming to work for the East Oregonian. She and her husband live in Pendleton with their two children. She can be reached at kbbrown@eastoregonian.com.


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