We all grow up listening to the dire warnings from our parents. For several generations, they were busy cautioning us not to sit too close to the television set or risk permanent eye damage. Today, kids are more likely to hear, “Stop playing those video games so much or you’ll hurt your eyes.” But now optometrists aren’t so sure about that.
Members of the American Optometric Association are suggesting that the new Nintendo 3DS may be a helpful tool that can alert parents to a potential vision problem, especially in children younger than 6. That’s despite the manufacturer’s own warning that the product should not be used by kids under the age of 6, mind you.1
The optometrists’ reasoning for this is that children who are unable to see the 3-D effects of the images on the screen most likely have a vision issue. If your child tells you that it doesn’t appear 3-D or they feel dizzy or uncomfortable playing it, they should definitely visit an eye specialist. They may be suffering from one of a range of vision problems that typically arise in early childhood, such as amblyopia. Amyblyopia, otherwise known as lazy eye, is the most common vision disorder in children. It occurs when the nerve pathway from one eye to the brain does not develop properly during early childhood. This eye then sends a blurred or incorrect image to the brain and the brain responds by ignoring it, resulting in a loss of vision in the weaker eye.
By the age of 6, these connections between the visual system and the brain are complete, so treating these disorders after that point is not nearly as effective as it is in children 5 and under. If left untreated, these children may experience headaches, double vision, and eyestrain, and have trouble reading.
So playing video games is good for children, yes?
Not necessarily, since there is no research at this time that supports the viewpoint of these optometrists. In fact, there are plentiful studies that strongly suggest that playing video games can harm children’s eyesight. The American Optometric Association itself says on its website that “extensive viewing of a computer screen can lead to eye discomfort, fatigue, blurred vision, and headaches.” And the problem is worse for children because they tend to play their games for long periods of time without giving their eyes a rest. This can result in trouble with focusing on objects at different distances and eye irritation.
According to a 2008 study at the University of California, Berkeley,2 3-D viewing is even worse for children’s developing eyes than regular video games. That’s because the effect is created by off-setting two somewhat differing images. That process can cause a conflict between the way the eyes focus and how our brain gauges the distance — leading to eye fatigue, discomfort, headache, and eye strain. And the closer your face is to the screen, the greater the problems. Therefore, a handheld video game such as the Nintendo 3DS is worse for you than watching a 3-D movie on TV or in the theater.
Amusingly, the American Optometric Association just recently announced that they would be partnering with the 3DAtHome Consortium. Who might they be, you ask? A coalition of television manufacturers and movie production studios who generate 3D products and are interested in pushing the technology! Although they suggest that their alliance is all about sharing information about the effects of 3-D, it seems more than a little fishy that the American Optometric Association would suddenly be saying how beneficial these games are as vision tools for young children without any research to back it up…not to mention the contradiction to all their previous advice.
So maybe you shouldn’t be buying your 5-year-old a brand new Nintendo 3DS and asking him whether he can perceive the images in 3-D or waiting for him to start complaining about eyestrain. It’s probably a better idea to actually take him to an optometrist for a checkup before he begins elementary school. A thorough exam (and won’t we all be surprised if the testing equipment includes a Nintendo 3DS) will alleviate any concerns you may have, especially if there is a family history of vision issues. Besides, your child doesn’t need to start forming the video game habit at such an early age. That addiction will come soon enough without your help.
1 Wingfield, Nick; Hobson, Katherine; and Wakabayashi, Daisuke. “Nintendo Warns on 3-D for Children.” The Wall Street Journal. 30 December 2010. Dow Jones & Company, Inc.. 26 March 2011. <http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204304204576051021329863968.html>.
2 Hoffman, David M.; Girshick, Ahna R.; Akeley, Kurt; and Banks, Martin S. “Vergence-accommodation conflicts hinder visual performance and cause visual fatigue.” Journal of Vision. 28 March 2008. Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology. 25 March 2011. <http://www.journalofvision.org/content/8/3/33.abstract?sid=a3517b8a-9a5b-4942-8e57-793625723ab7>.