PIKEVILLE — As more children return to school virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic, experts from the Kentucky College of Optometry are warning parents and guardians about how their children’s prolonged screen time can impact their vision.

As schools reopen across the country, many are focusing on online learning as the way to start the year, rather than in-person classes, due to COVID-19 concerns. Dr. Josephine Owoeye, associate professor of optometry, and Dr. Rachel Fitzgerald, assistant professor of optometry, warn that prolonged screen time for children, though, could have lasting effects on their vision and physical health.

“We know they’re going to be on these tablets, computers, phones, for learning purposes right now,” Dr. Fitzgerald said. “If they’re going to do those things, they just need to make sure that they’re taking breaks so that they’re not on a screen for eight hours a day. That’s not good for our eyes.”

Dr. Fitzgerald and Dr. Owoeye help lead the Dr. Jerald F. Combs Eye Clinic, a clinic operated through the Kentucky College of Optometry that provides vision services for patients, along with training and education for optometry students. Dr. Owoeye provides pediatric optometry care at Pikeville Medical Center, and they have both provided vision screenings to more than 1,500 children at local schools across the county since 2018.

Dr. Owoeye warned that prolonged screen time can cause eye strain, red eyes, rubbing of the eyes and overall discomfort. The discomfort can cause children to not want to focus and work on their school assignments.

“They start to have discomfort that they can’t express,” Dr. Owoeye said. “Sometimes they don’t know that it’s abnormal to be feeling that way.”

Dr. Fitzgerald added that as children spend more time on their devices for online learning, their vision may alter to the point of needing to change and update their prescription for contacts or glasses. If these issues are not addressed, Dr. Owoeye said, the students will start to develop an avoidance for doing their schoolwork.

“If they have avoidance, then their grades will start to suffer because they’re not completing their tasks,” Dr. Owoeye said. “Of course, they may not express what’s going on, but it may just be that they don’t want to do their work.”

Dr. Fitzgerald recommended that children take breaks in between periods of time on their tablets or computers. For school-aged children, Dr. Fitzgerald recommended that they get an eye exam every year in order to check if they have the correct prescription for their glasses, to check if their eyes are working well together and to check if their eyes are focusing well.

For children younger than 5 years old, she said, they are recommended to get an eye exam at the ages of 1, 3 and 5 years-old. Children must get an eye exam, she said, in order to complete the required forms to enter any state-funded preschool.

“It’s important that parents make sure that their kids can see well for school, but also making sure that they’re not having these problems with eye strain and headaches,” Dr. Fitzgerald said.

Dr. Fitzgerald said that she has seen cases of high school students who did not want to do their school work and were written off as being lazy. However, she said, those students were actually experiencing a lot of eye pain and discomfort when trying to focus, and their eyes would be so tired from school that they would sleep for long periods of time. This eye strain and discomfort, she said, was actually the reason why they could not complete their schoolwork.

“My goal as a pediatric doctor is to never let a child get to that point, to identify these issues earlier and address them earlier because then that’s going to lead to better success — not only in school, but then later in life as well,” Dr. Fitzgerald said.

The Dr. Jerald F. Combs Eye Clinic at KYCO offers pediatric eye exams and other specialty vision services, like contact lenses, dry eye, low vision and rehabilitation, ocular disease, pediatric eye care, primary eye care, surgical services and vision therapy. It is located in the fifth floor clinic suite of the Health Professions Education building, located at 810 Hambley Boulevard.

Pediatric appointments are available from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesdays and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursdays. Appointments for adults are available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday. To make an appointment or for more information, call, (606)218-5540, or visit, https://www.upike.edu/optometry/optometry-clinic.

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