MONTREAL -- Children and teenagers have been paying more visits to the optometrist's office lately, the Quebec Association of Optometrists says, and it's because of increased screen time.

Optometrists are booking more appointments for eye exams for young people, who are spending more time than ever in front of screens -- but it’s not the computer’s fault they're having issues, said optometrist and director of the School of Optometry at the University de Montreal, Dr. Langis Michaud.

“It's the way we use it. Meaning that because we are spending many more hours with screens compared to before [the pandemic]. That puts some stress on the visual system, and if there’s any defect in that system, this defect will be highlighted and we’ll become more symptomatic,” he said.

Michaud said symptoms normally seen in adults who spend a lot of time in front of screens are being reported among elementary and high school students.

They include red and dry eyes, visual fatigue, burning sensation, headaches, blurry or double vision and difficulty concentrating. 

One issue is that many elementary school children have never been for an eye exam, he said.

“That’s a problem. They need to be assessed by an optometrist early on to fix those issues. When that’s done, we can certainly improve the condition. Otherwise, the symptoms will get worse over time and this is where myopia can develop over time,” Michaud said.

He added that the recommendation is that children go for an eye exam at three years old and then annually as of five years old. 

“Even if your kids don’t have any symptoms, it’s a good thing for any kid to see an optometrist at least once a year ,just to make sure that [they] have the tools to be successful at school,” he said. 

At the elementary school level, he said, at least 10 to 15 per cent of children have problems with their eyesight. 

Another contributing factor is that people blink less when looking at a screen. 

“It’s five or six times less than normal. This means our eyes can become dry very rapidly. When you have dry eyes, you cannot see well, because tears are the first layer on the surface of the eye that helps us see well at all distances. If your tear film is unstable and your eyes are becoming dry then you lose your vision or it becomes unstable,” said Michaud. 

Poor vision health is another side effect of the pandemic and one being experienced not just in Quebec, but across the country.

Dr. Michael Nelson, president of the Canadian Association of Optometrists, said his colleagues across the country are reporting an increase in cases of eye strain and fatigue in children. 

Children who may have had minor issues are now in need of glasses. 

“All of a sudden this [pandemic] has pushed them to develop symptoms they didn’t have before. It’s all related to your eye focusing. All the systems have to work together, efficiently, to prevent eye strain,” he said. 

Nelson said when children are spending hours in front of a computer, and in the case of older students, hours more at night studying, there’s a huge demand on the eye muscles. 

Hours of online classes mean hours spent indoors, and for reasons that are still unclear, sunlight is good for our eyes. 

According to Nelson, it can help prevent myopia or nearsightedness.

“The amount of myopia is increasing worldwide and so there’s tonnes and tonnes of research looking into why that is and what factors we control. One of the theories out there is that increased screen time is possibly contributing to a [rise in] myopia. There’s not strong evidence one way or another. There needs to be more studies. But studies have shown that kids who spend more time outdoors in the sunshine tend to become less myopic. It’s not because they spend less time on screens, but there’s something about being outside that reduces the amount of nearsightedness.”