Are 3-D video games bad for young eyes?

Twenty-five years ago the Nintendo corporation introduced Americans to a lovable, pudgy plumber named Mario, and in the process jumpstarted a national obsession with home video game systems. Nintendo is poised to revolutionize the video game industry again, this time by incorporating 3-D technology into one of its hand-held video game systems. Almost all of the major video game manufactures already offer some form of 3-D experience, but Nintendo’s new project, the Nintendo 3DS, will be the first to do so without the need for specially designed 3-D glasses. It’s a small but important distinction, and one the executives at Nintendo hopes will help their product succeed where other home 3-D gadgets have failed.

While many in the gaming community are anxious to see the new technology, there’s some apprehension brewing among parents of gamers. Days before the release of the 3DS Nintendo began warning parents that children who play 3-D games should be limited to half hour intervals, and that children 6 and under should only be allowed to use the product in 2-D mode (by changing a few parental controls, the system can be played in 3-D or 2-D.)

Not surprisingly, the warning raised questions among many would-be consumers: Can 3-D games hurt my kids’ eyes, especially if they are younger?

David Hunter,MD,PhD

These are valid concerns, but according to David Hunter, MD, PhD, Ophthalmologist-in-Chief at Children’s Hospital Boston’s Department of Ophthalmology, there isn’t any scientific data associating 3-D technology and eye problems. He says Nintendo’s cautionary statement was more likely made to protect the company from unfounded lawsuits than out of a sense of corporate responsibility.

“3-D simulation can cause eye fatigue for some people, but whether or not it can be directly linked to eye problems is still just speculation,” he says. “There may be more worry for how it can effect younger kids, because they are still undergoing eye development and too much exposure to 3-D images could effect their binocular vision, but that hasn’t been proven.”

What we do know for sure about vision problems in young children is that they can be very hard to detect, making timely treatment difficult. But Hunter and his colleagues are looking to change that. His team is currently in the final stages of testing an eye-scanning prototype that digitally identifies misalignments in a child’s eyes. The researchers have already successfully tested children as young as 2 years-old, which is important because early identification leads to early treatment, which often means vision irregularities like amblyopia, or lazy-eye, can be fixed without long lasting effects.

“If amblyopia is treated early, before school age – it is often possible to recover normal vision,” he says. “But if the diagnosis and treatment are delayed, it may be too late to get vision back, and the child will have a lifetime of poor vision in one eye.”

Check out this video to learn more about their groundbreaking prototype.