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Can’t remember the last time your child saw the eye doctor — if ever? Here’s why the teen years are a prime time to bring them in for an eye exam.
Headaches. Constantly rubbing their eyes. Finding it hard to concentrate. These are all common complaints parents hear from their kids during the tween and teen years, and they can all indicate an undetected vision problem. While it’s natural for parents to be hyper-focused on their children’s eyesight when they’re young, it often falls off the radar as they age.
“When kids are in elementary school and stay in one classroom all day, it can be easier for teachers to spot trouble seeing,” explains Michelle Esmaeili, O.D., an optometrist at Redwood Sage, P.C., located inside America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in Rancho Cucamonga, California. But these issues may be missed in middle or high school as kids switch classrooms frequently and teachers and parents watch them less closely.
But it’s more important than ever to make sure you stay on top of your teen’s vision, stresses Dr. Esmaeili. About 40% of boys and more than half of girls between the ages of 14 and 17 need to wear glasses or contact lenses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They’ll need to see well enough to pass a driving test and to play sports. It’s also a way to reinforce healthy eye habits that will last a lifetime.
While kids’ vision is often checked at school, it’s not foolproof. In fact, up to 75% of school vision screenings miss vision problems, according to the American Optometric Association.
“It’s an excellent first step, but it only checks distance vision,” says Dr. Esmaeili. “It doesn’t screen near vision or assess other things needed for good vision, like depth perception or the ability of the eyes to work together and focus.”
The best way to stay on top of your teen’s vision is with regular eye exams, she advises. This usually means visiting an optometrist every other year — or once a year, if they wear glasses or contacts — even if your child doesn’t complain of any problems. And if you notice any of the issues below, get an eye exam scheduled, stat.
Red flag No. 1: Headaches
“We’ve seen more teens complaining of headaches due to eyestrain, especially since computer screens and digital devices became such a big part of school and homework,” says Dr. Esmaeili.
In these cases, their vision is still fine, but they may require a light reading prescription for when they’re using electronics to alleviate eyestrain, she explains.
Red flag No. 2: Rubbing their eyes
This can be a sign of eye fatigue, especially if your teen also mentions that their eyebrows ache. “When your eyes have to strain to focus, you can feel it all around the eyes, including your eyebrows,” Dr. Esmaeili explains. If your teen also complains that their eyes itch, it may be a sign that they have allergic conjunctivitis, eye irritation caused by allergies.
Red flag No. 3: Sitting very close to the TV
If your teen’s nose is practically pressed against the screen, or if you notice they’re holding their phone or iPad very close to their face, or that they’re lowering their head while reading, they may have myopia, or nearsightedness. While this is normally first diagnosed in kids between ages 8 and 12, it can develop during the teen years. And if your child has mild myopia, their eyesight may worsen once they hit their teens, as it’s a time of rapid growth.
Red flag No. 4: Squinting
This can indicate astigmatism, an imperfection in the curvature of the eye’s cornea or lens. (A normal eye is shaped like a basketball, but with astigmatism it’s shaped more like a football.) As a result, vision is blurry or distorted, kind of like looking into a funhouse mirror. It can be easily treated with glasses or contact lenses.
Red flag No. 5: Difficulty concentrating on schoolwork
If your teen seems to have developed a short attention span, avoids reading, or has difficulty remembering things they just read, their vision may be to blame.
“Teens have to quickly adapt their visual focus from distant to near as their eyes move from classroom blackboards to materials in front of them,” says Dr. Esmaeili.
If they’re having difficulty, it may seem like they’re not paying attention, or even like they have a condition such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In fact, they may have an eye-teaming or eye-movement problem, the symptoms of which can often look like ADHD.
If you’re noticing this symptom in your teen (or child of any age), one of your first calls should be to schedule an eye exam to rule out vision problems. It’s a key first step toward untangling this problem for your child.
For more on the connection between vision problems and ADHD, and what parents need to know, click here.
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Red flag No. 6: Problems playing sports
Sometimes, teens seem fine at school, but issues pop up when they play athletics. This is because sports require specific visual skills, including clear distance vision, good depth perception, a wide field of vision, and strong hand-eye coordination. If your teen keeps missing the basket when shooting hoops or always swings late at baseball pitches, see an eye doctor.
“Eye correction is crucial for high-level sports, especially if it involves a small object like a baseball,” says Dr. Esmaeili. If eyeglasses or contact lenses aren’t enough, your optometrist can prescribe vision therapy, a program of eye exercises that can strengthen some of those crucial sports-related vision skills.
How your optometrist can reinforce the basics (before kids leave the nest)
One more crucial reason to bring your teens in for an eye exam: They can back you up on all the hygiene basics — and then some.
In addition to the no-brainers about good handwashing — which of course helps prevent the spread of germs from kids’ hands to their eyeballs — Dr. Esmaeili teaches teens the importance of good eye care. This includes explaining to them why they need to:
- Wear eye protection when they play high-risk sports, such as basketball, baseball, racquetball, or hockey.
- Use artificial tears if their eyes feel dry and irritated after using a computer.
- Wear sunglasses when outdoors, to prevent damage from UV exposure.