If you’ve got kids (or grandkids), you’re thinking about, worrying about, and trying to manage screen time. Before the Covid-19 pandemic began, research estimated than more than 80% of children were spending three hours or more a day using digital devices.
And since the onset of the pandemic, screen time for kids has gone to a whole new level. Millions of kids are spending hours a day in front of screens for school—and that’s in addition to screen time for watching shows, playing games, and video chatting with friends and family they can’t see in person.
Parents have always come to me with concerns about screen time in relation to their children’s sleep. But since the pandemic began, I’ve been hearing from countless parents worried about the impact of all this screen time on kids’ sleep—and their eye health.
And the risks to children’s eye health isn’t limited to screen time and digital devices. Environmental light and UV light from the sun also pose risks to kids’ eye health and the potential for problems with their healthy sleep.
Because of the developing brains and developing eyes, children need extra protection from potentially sleep-disrupting and harmful bright- and blue-light exposure, indoors and out.
I developed a pair of blue-light blocking glasses for adults, with all the latest technology and rigorous testing that’s needed to create blue-light blockers that do the work of eliminating more than 98% of blue light. (Even small amounts of blue light can disrupt sleep and circadian rhythms—this is the only level of protection that’s effective and worth any investment.)
Seeing the impact of the pandemic on kids’ screen habits made it clear: I needed to get back to the drawing board to create blue-light blocking glasses to meet children’s specific needs, for both sleep protection and eye health. I went back to the smart folks at Luminere, who collaborated with me on our adult blue-light blockers.
I’m thrilled to tell you that our Sleep Doctor Kids glasses are out in the world, ready to go to deliver comprehensive, morning-to-bedtime protection for children’s sensitive eyes and sensitive sleep patterns.
Before I give you the details on these awesome, fun glasses for kids, let’s take a closer look at why kids need protection from too much digital, artificial and even natural light.
Kids are uniquely vulnerable to blue light sleep disruption
Blue light is what’s known as high-energy visible light, or HEV. Blue light is the shortest wavelength, and the highest energy light on the visible light spectrum. It is the most stimulating and alerting wavelength of visible light. We’re exposed to HEVs through sunlight, and also through artificial light sources. LED light, used in digital devices such as computers, tablets, TVs, and smartphones, emit high levels of blue light.
Blue light aggressively inhibits the production of melatonin, a hormone that is a central regulator of circadian rhythms and also is essential for sleep. In adults, research has shown that blue light suppresses melatonin for more than twice as long as other visible light wavelengths—and alters circadian rhythms by twice the degree.
Children are at even higher risk for melatonin suppression from blue light than adults are. Research shows that children experience nearly two times the degree of melatonin suppression from blue light as adults do.
Their developing eyes are significantly more sensitive to light than adult eyes. Children have larger pupils than adults do, which means there’s a larger opening for light to penetrate the eye and make contact with the retina, where light is converted to stimulating neural signals that are passed along to the brain. As this 2018 study demonstrates, a 70-year-old has one-fifth the capacity for light reception as a teenager.
And younger children appear to be at higher risk than young adults who have moved through puberty. For example, this 2015 study found that prepubescent children and kids in puberty experienced twice the levels of melatonin suppression as older adolescents. And research has found that preschool age children experience high levels of melatonin suppression from bright, blue-rich light.
Digital screens are a potent source of HEVs for children, who these days are hopping from one screen to the next. But screens aren’t the only source of sleep-inhibiting, circadian-disrupting blue light. Sunlight is rich in blue light. And so are LED and fluorescent light bulbs, which are commonplace in homes because of their energy efficiency.
Children are at particular risk for light-induced eye damage
The sensitivity of children’s developing eyes also puts them at greater risk for eye strain, vision problems, and eye damage, from exposure to both artificial light and to sunlight.
Children are at risk for eye strain from spending extended time looking at screens. The symptoms of digital eye strain include:
- blurry vision
- tired eyes
- itchy, dry, burning eyes
- neck, back, and shoulder pain
We all know kids don’t always tell us when they’re experiencing discomfort. Just because children aren’t talking about eye strain symptoms doesn’t mean they aren’t happening. A survey from 2014 found that 80% of children reported experiencing tired, blurry, itchy or burning eyes after looking at digital devices.
These symptoms occur in addition to the disruptions to sleep and circadian rhythms that children may experience from excessive blue light exposure as a result of screen time.
Prolonged screen time also puts children at higher risk for myopia, or nearsightedness, which can lead to even more serious vision problems later in life.
Sunlight is rich in HEVs, and it also transmits ultraviolet radiation, or UV rays. These harmful rays are what give us sunburn and cause skin cancers. They also harm the eyes—and children are especially vulnerable to eye damage from UV rays.
Children spend more time outside than adults do. Scientific estimates suggest that 80% of lifetime exposure to UV radiation occurs during childhood.
Children’s eyes are less equipped to filter out UV rays than adult eyes. In kids, exposure to UV radiation can cause internal eye damage that elevates their risks for long-term eye problems—including cataracts, macular degeneration, eye growths and eye cancers. Some children are also prone to developing migraine headaches when they spend time in the sun without glasses.
Why blue-light blocking glasses are the right choice for kids
There’s a body of research showing that blue-light blocking glasses can be highly effective at filtering out blue light and supporting healthy, high-quality sleep. Studies in adults show wearing blue light blocking glasses can:
- Improve symptoms of insomnia
- Increase sleep amounts and sleep quality
- Protect the timing of sensitive circadian rhythms, which regulate sleep-wake cycles
- Improve cognition, including memory, learning, and how quickly the brain processes information
A 2011 study of young adults found extended evening exposure to LED screens delayed the evening rise of melatonin, increased alertness, and decreased feelings of sleepiness. As the researchers pointed out in the discussion of their results, “any delay in melatonin rise has consequences for the parallel rise in sleep propensity.”
Melatonin is a key sleep facilitator, and a regulator of daily sleep-wake cycles. When nightly rise in melatonin is delayed, so is the work the melatonin performs to enable the transition to sleep—and our ability to maintain consistent sleep-wake cycles, and healthy sleep patterns, can be compromised.
A 2015 study by some of the same researchers investigated the effects of blue-light blocking glasses during evening exposure to LED screens in a group of teenagers, ages 15-17. They found that blue light blockers protected against the delayed rise in the teens’ nighttime melatonin levels, decreased their alertness and significantly increased their feelings of sleepiness before bedtime—all critical factors in the transition to sleep, and the ability to maintain a consistent bedtime that allows for sufficient nightly rest.
Another study, from 2014, compared before-bed use of an e-reader tablet to reading a printed book in a group of young adults. This research found using a e-reader screen in otherwise dim light conditions before bed delayed the nighttime rise of melatonin by 1.5 hours, compared to reading a printed book in the same dim light environment. The young adults who used e-readers also:
- Experienced significantly decreased sleepiness before bed
- Took longer to fall asleep
- Spent less time in REM sleep
How blue light blocking glasses work
To get the full and optimal protection from blue-light blocking glasses, the glasses must block blue light in three different ways:
Coating. The lenses need to be coated with a filter that prevents blue wavelength light from reaching the eye.
Brightness. Amber colored lenses are ESSENTIAL to the effectiveness of blue-light blocking glasses. Reducing brightness through an amber lens limits the amount of HEVs, or high energy visible light—that passes through to the eye, while allowing other, less alerting light wavelengths to pass through.
Reducing brightness also protects eyes from the invisible UV rays that cause damage and strain to the eyes.
Angle. For the glasses to work optimally, they must fit closely and securely, in position to provide full coverage in blocking harmful light. Straps and ear grips are essential features children’s light blocking glasses. Busy and active as they are, kids need glasses that will stay in place and continue to deliver the best angle for full protection.
When to use light blocking glasses for kids
Children have a spectrum of need for protection for their eyes and their sleep that spans day and night, indoors and outside.
During the day, they need protection from prolonged HEV exposure from screens—and they also need protection from the harmful HEV and UV rays from sunlight. At night, protection from screen light and from environmental light in the home is essential to allow melatonin levels to rise naturally and to maintain healthy circadian rhythms—and their delicate, easily disrupted nightly sleep patterns.
To provide this full range of protection, I developed TWO pair of glasses that go together in a single set—one for daytime, and the other for nighttime.
The daytime glasses are blue-light blocking with UV protection, anti-reflective and anti-glare to prevent eye strain from sunlight. These are the glasses that kids can take from remote school to the backyard, the beach, or a family trail hike. They’re for playing hard while keeping eyes safe—and helping to protect sleep for the night to come.
The nighttime glasses are blue light blockers with anti-glare protection designed to be worn in the evenings, starting about 90 minutes before bedtime, when it’s critical to prevent the stimulation of bright, blue-rich light from suppressing melatonin’s natural rise in preparation for sleep. Use them for reading before bed, for that last bit of after-dinner screen time, for whatever pre-bedtime activities your kids like to do. Remember, the environmental light from our energy efficient light sources in our homes is enough to interfere with melatonin production and potentially delay kids’ sleep.
A worry-free checklist for parents
My sleep-protecting, blue-light blocking glasses for kids were designed with all the same scientific rigor as my blue light blocking glasses for adults, and with kids’ particular needs (and likes!) at top of mind.
- They are scaled to fit most kids’ head sizes, to provide full coverage for blocking light and a close, secure, comfortable fit.
- The frames are BPA-free acetate and plastic.
- They’re equipped with our patented CR-39 lens filter, which blocks 99-100% of blue light—we did rigorous laboratory testing to ensure we reached this essential level of protection
- Amber-colored lenses reduce brightness and block HEV light wavelengths
- Glasses are anti-glare and anti-reflective, to protect against eye strain from digital and artificial light and natural sunlight
- Each set of two glasses comes with two sets of angle-securing straps two sets of anti-slip ear grips, to ensure that they deliver the optimal angle of protection for kids in constant motion
- Each set of two glasses comes with two protective cases and a cleaning cloth
- Kids get to choose between two designs: colorful blue light blocking glasses and classic blue light blocking glasses.
- And they come with a no questions, no exemptions, smash-proof warranty. Stomp them, scratch them, run them over with a bicycle—no matter what damage kids do, send them back and a replacement pair are on their way.
Kids and parents are under a lot of strain right now. And the sleep-related challenges of screen time aren’t going away with the pandemic. It’s my great hope that you’ll use these glasses to provide protection for your children, relief for your worry, and better, more consistent sleep for everyone in the family.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™