How Might Remote Learning Impact Young Eyes?

My optometrist needs roller skates; maybe wings and roller skates. He seemed to fly down the halls of his office yesterday, along with his three partners. Eventually, he breezed into my exam room.

So what brings you here today? he asked.

My eyes are killing me, I said. They ache. Sometimes they burn. When I get up in the morning it takes them a long time to adjust; I feel momentarily dizzy. Does that make sense?

He nodded and said something like: You and everyone else.

How long are you on a computer each day? he asked.

Too long, apparently; without enough breaks. But based on the response from my optometrist, I am not alone. Eye doctors–optometrists and ophthalmologists– are busier than ever. Lots of people are having eye issues in this new Zoom-Microsoft Team-Google Classroom world, especially children.

And it’s the children my optometrist, and others, are worried about as screen time increases due to remote learning. My optometrist noted: The developing eyes of children need to function in a 3-D universe. Learning on computers is a 2-D space. Essentially, remote learning means students function in a Flat Stanley World.

Picture of a Flat Stanley book cover.
Flat Stanley helps students see the world, but in 2-D, not 3-D

Seeing is more than being able to read a Snellen Chart which merely measures visual acuity; how clearly do you see those large and small letters at a certain distance.

A person with 20/20 vision can see what an average individual can see on an eye chart when they are standing 20 feet away,” says Dr. McKinney. McKinney is an ophthalmologist and glaucoma specialist at Eye Health Northwest, Oregon City, Ore. For example, if you have 20/30 vision, it means your vision is worse than average. Twenty feet away, you can read letters most people see from 30 feet.

What Does 20/20 Vision Mean?

So boasting with the phrase: I have 20/20 vision means very little when it comes to actually seeing; visual acuity is just one aspect of what we call vision. Honestly, human beings should stand in awe of what we so easily call seeing. What a complicated system which deserves so much more respect.

My optometrist not only does eye exams, but his office has a very busy vision therapy program. Vision therapists work with patients on a variety of eye function problems. And if you watched the presentation above, it’s evident the delicate dance between the eyes and the brain can have missteps.

I have written about my own challenges having been born with crossed eyes, called strabismus. While surgery corrected the look of my eyes, it did nothing to help develop a health vision system. For example, I have almost no depth perception–the ability to see in three dimensions. That lack of depth perception leaves a lot of holes in how I experience the world. Learning to drive was challenging. Fast forward, and now I have a backup camera in my car; it’s like having extra eyes for me.

Movies in 3-D? They always look flat even with those fun glasses. Sailing on a boat? Total disaster. Sea-sick to the max. Several of my high school classmates still joke about an adventure we all took on the Chesapeake Bay aboard another classmate’s boat. I spent much of my time below. Flying? As a budding radio reporter, I used to do traffic reports before and after Carolina football games. I drank a lot of Coca-Cola and downed dry crackers in the stadium so I could get back in the plane to guide people home.

The point here? Even a one-off from an intact vision system changes how one functions in the world. My right eye essentially dominates, meaning I see mostly through that eye. And all these years later, I now understand why it took me longer to read; why I would fall asleep so often while reading dense texts in grad school. My. Brain. Was. Tired.

While examining my eyes yesterday, my optometrist vented his frustrations. He’s very concerned about remote learning on developing eyes. He gets we’re in a pandemic. He gets that we need to take extreme measures to keep everyone safe. His biggest frustration? Why does teaching and learning have to take place online for so many hours? He wasn’t suggesting a return to classrooms. He was suggesting a significant reduction in screen time, especially for children in grades Pre-K-2.

Human skill development wires from gross motor to fine motor. The American Academy of Ophthalmology lists the critical eye development stages which go along with this skill development.

And let’s remember, humans are not robots. Some of us wire differently and in our own sweet time. The above lists note an average. There are so many variables in the lives of children which impact these milestones.

As we said good-bye, my optometrist told me to set a timer; make sure to use the 20-20-20 rule, he admonished. If you’re going to write about 20-20-20, he said, you better do it too!

Of course, I have now been writing for almost two hours. I need to find my timer.

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