June 4, 2021 Emma Sharp Dalton-Brown

If Children See Better, They Will Learn Better: The Impact Online School Has on Eyesight

If Children See Better, They Will Learn Better: The Impact Online School Has on Eyesight

One of my children regularly rubs his eyes, the other complains of headaches at the end of some days and they both go through bouts of acting out for what I see as ‘no reason’. They often look exhausted, yet they each sleep an average of ten hours per night. Dr. Katie Connolly, a Doctor of Optometry who serves as the Chief of Paediatric and Binocular Vision Clinics at the Indiana University School of Optometry, USA, says that these are signs indicating the need to have their eyes tested. According to Dr. Katie, as she is lovingly called by many, “It is important for children to have access to comprehensive eye and vision care. In a simple sense, children who need glasses should have glasses, but beyond that, children need eye health care.” Before the pandemic began, my boys were given extensive eye exams every two years. They are well overdue for a follow-up. Ordinarily, I would not be so bothered by the delay, but one significant thing has changed for all children: they have been in online learning for the last fifteen months, thus they have spent an unprecedented amount of time on their electronic devices. Could this be affecting their eyes?

Dr. Katie Connolly at Green Island Primary, November 2019 "See Better. Learn Better" Clinic

Dr. Katie stated that the increased screen time, which children are getting from online learning, is showing a significant difference in their eyesight. “There has been a stronger need for reading glasses than before. Typically children can handle short bursts of near work without any added help, but with increased near work, children have a stronger need for reading glasses to relieve strain on their focusing systems,” she said. While extensive screen time is affecting children, “It has likely not had long-term effects on eyesight,” she assured me. “However, it can have significant short-term effect on visual comfort, which can cause poor academic performance. Children, who would typically be okay in a classroom setting without glasses, are more likely to experience eye strain, headaches, eye fatigue and blurry vision, that come and go, with extended up-close work. This happens because demand on our visual system, specifically our focusing system, is much higher when viewing up-close continuously, rather than a combination of far and close viewing. As vision becomes fatigued, children often will become distracted, uncomfortable or be unable to complete their work. Productivity goes down as the day wears on. Children with uncorrected vision problems tend to have worse academic performance when learning is contingent on up-close viewing.” Dr. Katie continued to explain that our focusing system is activated when we are looking at something very close and it is quite precise for short periods, but the longer we look at a very close object, the less accurate our focusing system is and the more tired it becomes. “This means that kids might be seeing well during their first hour of online learning, but as the day goes on, their vision fatigues and starts to blur. This can ultimately cause a headache or eye strain. In more severe cases, it can cause double vision,” she explained.

Dr. Katie has been conducting research from her work as Clinical Director of See Better. Learn Better’ (‘SB.LB’), a programme that she has been helping to develop in western Jamaica since she joined the nonprofit organisation, Cornerstone Jamaica, back in 2017. Pre-pandemic, Dr. Katie, along with several doctors and students from America, and a score of other foreign and local Cornerstone Jamaica partners, who all volunteer, were coming together twice a year in Westmoreland to conduct week-long eye clinics. They will resume these clinics as soon as it is medically safe, so that they can continue their stellar work and perhaps one day, “Provide a nationwide eye care programme for primary school children that centres around Jamaicans providing care,” Dr. Katie revealed.

Comprehensive eye care comes at a cost, of course, so there are thousands of Jamaican children who simply don’t have the funds for eyeglasses, let alone eye exams. ‘SB.LB’ came into fruition to help rural community children, in western Jamaica, who are not able to see what is written on the board in class, nor see the words in their school books. This results in poor learning and ‘See Better. Learn Better’ have a mission: ‘bring vision screening to every school in Jamaica. To give every child the equal chance to achieve academic success.’ According to Amy Sabella-Malone, who is the lead optician and programme director of ‘SB.LB’, “We have screened 4325 children and dispensed 658 pairs of glasses, and we have performed 1760 comprehensive eye exams as well.”

Analysing data collected in Autumn 2019 from 815 Jamaican children, ages 6-12 years old, Dr. Katie has discovered that while they are generally rare in children, “In Jamaica, there is a higher rate of ocular disease, primarily genetic, such as Glaucoma and Keratoconus.” She elucidated that Keratoconus is a disease of the cornea that causes the collagen to degenerate over time, usually beginning in puberty and worsening in one’s twenties. Within the Jamaican population, however, it starts in primary school and rapidly progresses. Unfortunately, the light-based surgical treatments and special contact lenses, which are needed to correct this, are not available in Jamaica. Dr. Katie has also found that eye alignment, which is when both eyes work together, is a problem here. “The rate of wondering eye in Jamaica is two times more common than in American, European, and Australian populations,” she informed me.

Significant differences in eyeglass prescriptions between Jamaica and other parts of the world have also been noticed per her studies. In contrast to children in regions such as East Asia, where more than 90% of the child population is nearsighted, only 4% of the children in Jamaica have myopia (nearsightedness), but a staggering 96% has hyperopia (farsightedness) and 6% are highly farsighted. Why is this significant when it comes to doing school on one’s phone, tablet or laptop? “This means that Jamaican children are more prone to this visual fatigue with near work compared with many other populations. (Farsighted) Children who need glasses, but don’t have them, are at a disadvantage. The opposite is true for nearsighted people,” Dr. Katie divulged.

So how does one rectify this? “Usually these symptoms go away with rest,” Dr. Katie declared. Easier said than done. For five days a week, many children are online from eight o’clock in the morning until two or three o’clock in the afternoon, and then they often have to participate in group work and school clubs online for another one or two hours, and most of their homework must also be completed on their tablets or laptops. Aside from sleep time and mealtimes, when exactly are children supposed to relieve their symptoms with rest? “A simple thing to do is practice the 20/20/20 rule. This means for every 20 minutes of near work, take a 20-second break looking at something at least 20 feet away. These breaks help the focusing system refresh itself so it can handle the stamina of the long school day,” Dr. Katie has suggested. Take heed, please, all teachers and educators. Dr. Katie advises you to “Consider adding in ‘visual breaks’ to the school day. Every half hour, have the children take a 20-30 second break where they have to take their eyes off their screens and look far away.” After all, if children see better, they will learn better.

By: Emma Sharp Dalton-Brown | Emma@cornerstonejamaica.org