Smartphone gaming rapidly reduces blink rates in children

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An experimental setup showing the wearable eye tracking headset (Pupil Labs GmbH Berlin, Germany) when using a smartphone. Image: UNSW

Smartphone games cause dry eye symptoms and reduce blinking in school-aged children, UNSW researchers have found.

According to their research, published in Eyethe study participants’ blink rate per minute was cut in half.

Associate Professors Isabelle Jalbert and Blanka Golebiowski and PhD candidate Ms Ngozi Charity Chidi-Egboka, all from the UNSW School of Optometry and Vision Sciences, studied children playing games on a smartphone continuously for one hour.

“Children’s smartphone use is increasing rapidly, but its impact on the ocular surface is unknown. This study examined the effect of smartphone use on eye blinking, symptoms, and tear function in children “, they wrote.

The study participants – 36 children aged 6 to 15 (14 boys, 22 girls) – played two games continuously for one hour using an iPhone 5s.

Symptoms and tear film (lipid layer thickness, tear secretion, stability) were assessed before and after play.

Blink frequency and interval between blinks were measured in situ using an eye-tracking headset, before (during conversation) and continuously throughout the game.

Jalbert, Golebiowski, and Chidi-Egboka examined symptoms and tear film changes using paired t-tests.

“Changes in blinking over an hour were examined using repeated measures ANOVA (analysis of variance) and post-hoc comparisons with Bonferroni’s correction,” the authors wrote.

“Associations between changes in blink parameters, ocular symptoms, and tear film function were examined using Pearson’s bivariate correlation. All tests were two-sided and significance was established at p

They found that the symptoms worsened after an hour of smartphone play, but the tear film remained unchanged. Flash rate reduced from 20.8 flashes per minute to 8.9 flashes per minute. The interval between blinks increased from 2.9 seconds to 8.7 seconds during the first minute of gameplay compared to baseline conversation, and this effect remained unchanged throughout an hour of gameplay.

The researchers concluded that their study – the first study in children to examine ocular symptoms, in situ blink parameters and tear film indices after smartphone use – demonstrates the rapid impact of display a children’s eye health screen.

“These findings may help inform recommendations for the use of digital devices, including smartphones, by children,” they said.

“Children may be at longer-term risk of developing ocular surface disease and dry eye due to excessive smartphone use.”

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