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Health impact of electronics increasingly common

The Vision Council offers this 20-20-20 tip to reduce eye strain while using digital devices: work for 20 minutes, take a 20 second break and look 20 feet away. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

By Katie Demeria

Digital devices, like tablets and smart phones, are becoming staples in many lives, but some doctors are warning that the health problems associated with these gadgets may also become increasingly more common.

Dr. Phebe Burgess of Valley Health's Rehabilitation Services is an occupational therapist. She works with adults who have vision issues, and she recognizes the havoc that screens can wreak on the eyes.

"These days, everyone is on a digital device," Burgess said. "It could be their phones or using computers for work, and they're beginning to have issues."

The problem, she continued, comes from repetition. Looking at the same thing constantly over an extended period of time strains the eyes.

She follows the advice of the Vision Council, a nonprofit organization that serves the country's optical industry, encouraging her patients to practice the 20-20-20 tip.

"Work for 20 minutes on a digital device, then take a 20 second break and look 20 feet away," Burgess said. "It's very clever, because it's an easy thing to remember, and it can make a big difference.

According to the Vision Council, spending just two hours on a screen can cause eye strain and fatigue.

Staring at a device from an intermediate distance, Burgess said, hurts the eye. It focuses in when looking at something, she added, and doing this for too long can cause a great deal of strain.

"You have to think about the demands on a visual system," she said. "I think we're just at the beginning of people starting to have major issues. Why are we going to wait until everyone is having problems?"

Burgess deals with older patients who do not spend a lot of time staring at screens, so she does not see an overwhelming amount of individuals who are dealing with eye strain.

"My question is: are we going to see more of it, though?" she said. "Our health is all about balance, eating the right diet, getting enough sleep -- you can't abuse your eyes by spending eight hours on a digital device without taking care of them."

Kids, she pointed out, are using electronics at a steadily increasing rate, so they must be taught the best ways to treat their eyes as early as possible.

"We're only going to be using these things more and more, so instead of letting them control us, we need to manage it," she said.

According to Dr. Alethea Allen of Front Royal Pediatrics, children are exposed to much more screen time than is healthy for them.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, she said, recommends that children under the age of 2 have no exposure to screen time, including television.

"We know that children learn best by interacting with the world around them," Allen said. "They need to learn how to manipulate objects and basically figure out how things fit in the world.

"And they don't learn as well as they need to learn by just watching things on a screen."

Though children may seem like they are active and engaged when interacting with a digital screen, Allen said they are actually only engaging a small part of their brain.

"They're not growing the parts of their brain that they need to grow to have a good understanding of the way the world works," she said.

Actions that seem uncomplicated are likely the ones that will encourage the right kind of brain development, according to Allen. She said playing with blocks is more beneficial than watching an educational television show.

"I think that children who are given limited exposure to screen time are much more likely to be self-sufficient and independent in their play and when entertaining themselves," Allen said.

Getting children away from the digital gadgets, Allen added, is also a good way to start fighting childhood obesity, which can lead to a variety of other health issues.

Even if children are not outside, she said, being indoors with the television off will require more effort for play, thus burning more calories.

"Kids are coming in at earlier ages with their own tablets and iPods, and other video things," she said. "It's more prevalent than it used to be, and the associated issues need to be addressed."

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com

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