Smartphones are to blame for the rise of dry eye disease in children

Staring at smartphones and tablets is to blame for the rise of dry eye disease in children, say experts

  • Dry eye disease is more common in older people, but growing among the young
  • The increasing amount of time spent staring at screens is making more suffer
  • The syndrome can make eyes sore, red and swollen, and cause blurred vision
  • Experts at Aston University have made an app to test people for the condition

More children are getting dry eye disease because they spend so much time staring at screens, scientists say.

The condition is more common among older people but is rising in the young because they blink less when looking at screens, so their tears dry up quicker. 

So scientists at Aston University in Birmingham are developing a smartphone app to help diagnose people sooner if they are suffering with dry eyes.

The syndrome occurs when tears in the eyes are not produced properly or evaporate too quickly from the surface of the eyeball.

This causes irritation and discomfort in the eyes, and can lead to blurred vision or more serious problems.

The team’s app is designed to help GPs and pharmacists who don’t often have the correct equipment to diagnose people with the common condition, the creators say.

Children are spending an increasing amount of time looking at screens on smartphones and tablets, which could be fuelling a rise in dry eye disease, scientists say

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Every day an eyelid travels the length of a football pitch to spread lubricating tears to provide protection and nutrients for the eyes. 

But not everybody’s tears work properly – one in five adults are thought to have dry eyes, which cannot be cured but does not usually have serious consequences.

Prolonged screen use damaging children’s eyes 

But the university researchers say children’s constant use of screens on their televisions, tablets and smartphones is making it more common among younger generations.


Applying a droplet of blood to dry eyes could be a simple new way of tackling the condition, according to a technique launched last year.

Patients who put just a finger-prick amount of their own blood on their lower lid saw symptoms such as stinging and redness improve within three days.

And after only eight weeks, the severity of their symptoms had reduced by a third.

Specialists at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, where the new technique is being tested, say blood contains many of the same natural nutrients found in tears that help to keep the eye lubricated and nourished. 

These include epidermal growth factor, a naturally occurring chemical which helps to keep cells on the surface of the eye healthy. 

It is found in tears, but levels are significantly reduced in patients with dry-eye problems.

A common treatment involves using artificial tears to lubricate the eye surface. However, these often lack the natural healing ingredients such as epidermal growth factor.

In contrast, blood is packed with these nutrients, and they play a vital role in the growth of cells and the healing of tissue. 

Professor James Wolffsohn said: ‘Dry eye is traditionally considered an old person’s disease, but we are increasingly seeing it surface in children.

‘This is likely because of prolonged screen use, which makes us blink less and speeds up the rate our tears evaporate. 

‘We need to do more to understand the health implications of children glued to smartphones, tablets and game consoles for hours at a time, which is why we will use our app to launch the first large scale survey of dry eyes in children at the Royal Society this week.’ 

Not yet available to the public, the team are showing their app this week at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition in London.

App’s blink test could be used by GPs or at home 

It involves answering simple questions and a quick test which measures how long you can comfortably stare at a screen without blinking. 

They hope it will be used in GP surgeries, pharmacies and in people’s homes to help them keep track of their eye health. 

Dry eye disease, also called dry eye syndrome, can cause the eyes to become red, swollen and irritated, vision to be blurred, and the eyelids to stick together during sleep. 

This happens because tears – which produce a protective film and lubricate the eye – do not work properly or the body does not produce enough of them. 

The condition can be caused by contact lenses, hot or windy weather, underlying conditions like inflamed eyelids, or be a side effect of medications or hormone changes in women.

It is not usually serious and symptoms can usually be controlled with eye drops to lubricate the eye, or medication or surgery if necessary.

However, it can lead to more serious eye problems like conjunctivitis or inflamed corneas.

‘There is an irony in using technology to diagnose this’ 

Researchers say dry eye disease, which is more common in women, will affect a growing number of people because looking at screens a lot is likely to cause it.  

Professor Wolffsohn adds: ‘There is a certain irony in using technology to diagnose the ills caused by technology, but sight is a precious sense to protect and our app is an effective way of raising awareness about this persisting and debilitating condition. 

‘Our research has the potential to guide people to more appropriate treatment at an earlier stage, and we hope to empower patients to do their bit to reduce the burden on the NHS.’    

The researchers add the eye’s surface becomes more at risk of sun damage when someone has a more ‘salty’ tear film due to dry eye.

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