January-February 2021 | Health

The eye guy

With kids staring at computer monitors all day, a Chevy Chase ophthalmologist is hearing from plenty of anxious parents

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Photo by Lisa Helfert

As a pediatric ophthalmologist for 17 years, Dr. G. Vike Vicente has dealt with his share of worried moms and dads. But since the pandemic started, their stress has reached a new level.

“More than actual complaints from kids, it’s anxiety from parents,” Vicente, 49, says about the tenfold increase in inquiries related to the potential harm of screen time on vision. “All of us around the world—kids and grown-ups—are spending more time in front of monitors than ever before because of COVID. That has raised concerns.”

Vicente does his best to be reassuring. Do long periods in front of the computer make your eyesight worse? No. Are headaches caused by eye problems? Only 1% of the time. What about blue-light glasses? “They’re a scam,” he says of the heavily marketed eyewear—blue light from digital devices does not lead to eye disease or cause eyestrain. Vicente tells his patients not to waste money on the trendy glasses, which he says are not backed by medical evidence.

At Eye Doctors of Washington in Chevy Chase, Vicente mostly sees children (but also some adults) with problems such as eye misalignment or a droopy eyelid. Compared with a year ago, about twice as many kids are complaining that their eyes feel achy and tired. Vicente starts with an exam to rule out any vision problems. If the eyes are dry, he may suggest soothing drops or a humidifier. When staring at a screen, driving, or engrossed in a book, people blink just three times a minute—compared with 12 to 15 times a minute when they’re talking—which can exacerbate dry eyes, he says.

In the absence of a medical issue, Vicente encourages good habits. Minimize glare by tilting screens or moving lamps from behind the monitor to behind the person. Take a break every 20 minutes to look away from the phone or computer.

It’s best to turn off screens an hour before bed, says Vicente, who lives in Bethesda and has two teenagers. “We have the same conversations that I have with my patients: Put the phone down. Take a break. But it’s hard. Their social life is now online,” he says. “My street cred at home is limited, but I try.”

Born in Argentina, Vicente came to the U.S. at the age of 2, moved around a lot, and spent his high school years in Waynesboro, Virginia. After graduating from William & Mary in Williamsburg, he completed his pediatric ophthalmology fellowship at Harvard/Boston Children’s Hospital in 2003.

Fluent in Spanish, he’s taken several medical mission trips to Central America, where he performs simple yet life-changing eye surgeries. The week is exhausting, he says, but the results are rewarding. He sometimes operates on babies who are cross-eyed, and he loves seeing their parents’ reactions. Moms will tell him, “My baby is looking at me now!” Vicente says. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, it’s kinda cool, right?’ ”

In his own words…

Early calling

“When I was in second grade, I dissected my goldfish after he died of natural causes. I had an early interest in surgery and small things. My parents realized, ‘Hey, a doctor. Great. Let’s help him get there.’ I was never wigged-out by the eye—some of my [medical school] colleagues were. I see mostly pediatric patients. Kids are fun. They might cry, but they never complain, really. They are very resilient.”

Debunking the myths

“There are a lot of things that are bad for eyes: sticks, arrows, scissors. When your mom says, ‘Don’t run with scissors,’ listen. When she says, ‘Don’t stand so close to the TV,’ there is no merit in that. The content of what your child is watching is more important than how close they are sitting. Reading in dim light—that’s another one. It’s not bad for you. Kids have better night vision than grown-ups.”

Change of scenery

“Nearsightedness has to do with the shape of the eye. For kids who need glasses, it’s usually genetic. Spending time outdoors helps a little bit, but not much. It’s not that the computers are bad for eyes, it’s that kids are inside and that will make nearsightedness worse. Spending time indoors will affect if a child needs glasses, not the computer itself. In between classes, go outside. Pretend you have recess, dribble the ball, walk the dog.”

Just for fun

“We probably see two kids a week who are lying because they want glasses. The most common is a 7-year-old female. They all do the same thing—exaggerate. I ask, ‘What do you think would help?’ They smile and say: ‘Glasses?’ And get so excited. We send them to a store to buy some fashion glasses. Invariably, they are happy. I tell the parent not to get mad. They don’t have to go to a psychologist. It’s very age-appropriate.”

20/20

“People often ask: ‘When should my child go to the eye doctor?’ The answer is never, unless there is any worry—if the pediatrician, teacher or mom sees something wrong. Or, if there is a family history, we need to see those kids. But if a healthy kiddo can pass the eye test at the pediatrician, then we don’t need to see them.”