Blog Post

Visual Stress of Virtual Learning


Published on July 14, 2020 by Dr. Christina Murray, O.D.

Screen time has risen steadily with the growth of technology in recent years. Most parents of school-age children grew up without personal digital devices. Now, you would be hard-pressed to find a child who does not use these devices daily. It is now normal for schools to use tablets and computers over textbooks and paper. Many children are looking at the potential of 100% of their schooling to take place in a virtual format. As a Developmental Optometrist, I know how challenging this can be for some children. With virtual schooling becoming the new reality for many children, I am expecting to see an even greater increase in children experiencing visual stress and learning related vision problems.

To understand how staring at screens can negatively affect our eyes, let us break down what our eyes need to do every time we look at a near object. First, both of our eyes need to point to exactly the same place to get a single image. Next, our eyes need to shift their focus to make the image clear. While maintaining a single and clear image, our eyes need to be able to track across a line of text smoothly or accurately follow the object of regard. For most adults, this process occurs instantaneously and effortlessly. This is not the case for many children. As many as one in four children do not have the visual skills to team, focus, and track their eyes properly.

Staring at screens

www.visuallearningcenter.com/tag/eye-teaming/

Take that same child and put them in front of a computer screen for 7-8 hours a day and you will most likely see physical and behavioral changes. When your child is no longer watching their teacher in the classroom, and instead staring at a screen, they are no longer able to effectively explore the space around them to give their eyes a break. Their focus is solely on the screen. Virtual schooling is asking children to operate in conditions under unusually higher visual stress than the visual system was never designed for. This can have devastating effects on their academic performance and their ability to learn.

Poor academic performance

Children who previously were able to compensate for their visual deficits, or who were only mildly symptomatic, may become severely symptomatic. Each child approaches problems of visual stress in a different way. Children who are highly symptomatic may have perfect grades despite the extraordinary effort they need to put in. Sometimes these children do not realize that their eyes are working differently than anyone else or that they are needing to put in more effort. On the other hand, a mildly symptomatic child may act out or avoid near work altogether. The typical human response is to avoid something if it is difficult or painful. Visual stress is not any different. Children who experience visual stress with near work may say they hate reading or put up a fight anytime they are asked to do their schoolwork. Visual problems do not go away on their own and increase as the demand in school increases. The visual demands of virtual schooling may be too great for many children.

Sometimes children don't realize their eyes work differently than their peers

There are ways to help a child overcome their visual deficits caused by visual stress and learn to use their eyes in a more efficient and effective way. Visual stress may be solved simply with a pair of glasses or may need more intervention with vision therapy. If you answer yes to any of the questions at the bottom of the page, have your child evaluated by a Developmental Optometrist. They may uncover an undiagnosed visual problem exacerbated by virtual learning. Catching and treating these visual problems will give your child the tools they need to reach their full potential.

  • Do you have concerns about your child’s reading abilities?
  • Does your child skip lines/words when reading?
  • Does your child struggle to keep their attention centered on reading?
  • Does your child have better comprehension when someone reads to him or her?
  • Is homework a struggle?
  • Does your child have difficulty completing assignments in a reasonable amount of time?
  • Do you have concerns with your child’s reversals of letters/numbers?
  • Does your child have frequent headaches or eye discomfort while reading or doing homework?

Vision and classroom tasks chart