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Digital Education Shifts Strain from Shoulders to Eyes

Increased use of classroom technology takes the weight out of backpacks, but puts it on the eyes.

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High schools are trading in bulky textbooks for sleek digital devices, lightening the load in students' backpacks. But the extended time spent staring at eReaders, netbooks, and iPads is shifting the burden from shoulders to eyes.

Increased digital time doesn't damage vision, but it does strain it—causing dry eyes, fatigue, headaches, and blurred vision, experts say. This visual burden is especially prevalent in younger adults.

Nearly 70 percent of people ages 18 to 33 reported experiencing dry eyes, sensitivity to light, and eye fatigue as a result of technology use, according to a September survey by the American Optometric Association (AOA). The annual survey asks 1,000 people ages 18 and older about their viewing habits and vision health.

"I get bad headaches, where my eyes get fatigued really easily," says Alfonso Ruvalcaba, 18, a senior at South Texas Business Education and Technology Academy in Edinburg, Texas. Ruvalcaba spends as many as three hours in a row in front of a computer screen at school working on animation, coding, and other coursework.

"We do take breaks, and we do make sure that we're not glued to the screens," he says.

As new technologies are introduced in the classroom, exercising your eyes and the muscles that control their movement becomes increasingly important, according to Jim Sheedy, director of the Vision Performance Institute at Pacific University in Oregon.

[See photos of U.S. News's Most Connected Classrooms.]

"All of these technologies are quite demanding on the visual system," Sheedy says. "You place it at a greater risk for breaking down and having symptoms."

While tech–related eye strain won't permanently damage vision, it can impact students' education. The pain and discomfort of overworked eyes can lead to students avoiding tasks and homework, Sheedy says. Students and teachers can relieve the ocular burden by taking a few small, simple steps outlined below.

1. Give it a rest: We live in a digital world and technology cannot be avoided, but sticking to a 20–20–20 rule when working on computers and small screens will give eyes a much needed break.

"Every 20 minutes, take a 20 second break, and look at something 20 feet away," the AOA recommends on its website.

Stretching your eyes, like stretching your body, will give them a chance to refresh, which goes a long way toward minimizing eye strain.

"Most kids do respond to a quick relaxation break," says Michael Repka, professor of ophthalmology and pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University and clinical correspondent for the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). "The body is pretty resilient and, given the opportunity, it does respond on its own."

2. Mind your monitor: Take a moment to look at where your monitor or screen is positioned. Is the top of your display level with your eyes? It should be, Sheedy says.

"This results in the eyes looking down 10 to 15 degrees, which is where they like to look," Sheedy says.

Positioning the screen too low or too high forces your body to adjust—either by hunching over or straining your neck—so your eyes can find their comfort zone.

[Read about how more high schools are implementing iPad programs.]

3. Blink: Tiny tear glands cleanse and moisten the eye every time your eyelids close, so blinking is the eye's way of heading to the drinking fountain.

Most people blink 18 times every minute, but studies show that amount is cut in half when we use computers and other digital devices, leaving our eyes parched.

Posting a sticky note on your monitor reminding you to blink and using eye drops will help refresh dry eyes, the AAO recommends.

[Find out how teachers are using cell phones in the classroom.]

4. Mix it up: Varying classroom activities to move between close-up and distance viewing helps exercise the eye and the muscles behind its movement, giving students' eyes the workout they need, says Repka from Johns Hopkins.

This means "some education on the SMART Board in the front of the room, some of the education on laptops or desktops, with ample time in between sessions," he says. "Look for ways to allow more distance activities."