Pandemic screen-time sees a rise in short-sighted children

Children spending more time inside looking at screens during the coronavirus pandemic has fuelled a rise in childhood short-sightedness (myopia).

More children are needing glasses than before the pandemic and are developing problems at a younger age: about six or seven, instead of eight or nine.

The trend was most pronounced in NSW and Victoria, which experienced the longest lockdowns and remote learning requirements.

What is Myopia?

Myopia is more commonly known as short-sightedness. It is a common condition where light is focused in front of the retina, which results in a person experiencing blurred vision of anything in the distance. People with myopia can often see closely clearly, but anything in the distance is not clear.

The myopic eye

Your eyeball grows through childhood and adolescence. Usually, myopia starts in childhood and progresses until maturity. Myopia occurs when your eyeball grows too long for the focusing power of the eye.

The elongated eye may create structural problems which could increase the lifetime risks of serious eye conditions including myopic maculopathy, retinal detachment, cataracts and glaucoma.

How to tell if your child should be checked for Myopia

Optometry Australia estimates one in five school children have an undetected vision problem, as young children tend to assume everyone sees the world the same way they do.

Symptoms in children include:

  1. Your child may complain of blurry vision, for instance they may not be able to read what is on the board at school.
  1. You may notice them squinting when looking at things in the distance, or squinting in general.
  1. They are frequently rubbing their eyes
  1. Your child may be experiencing frequent headaches.
Key statistics
  1. 76% of parents of children under 12 believe glasses are the best solution if a primary school aged child is diagnosed with myopia. In fact, there are many options that should be discussed and considered if your child is diagnosed with myopia.
  2. 49% of parents of children aged 17 and under admit they do not know what causes myopia.
  3. Only 12% of parents know that lifestyle factors have an impact on child myopia.
  4. 31% of Australian kids (17 and under) have never been to an optometrist to have an eye test.
  5. 44% of children have not been to an optometrist to have an eye test before their ninth birthday.
Environmental factors contribute to developing myopia

Research shows that children need to spend two hours a day outside in bright light to help put off the onset of myopia.

There are two main risk factors for a child to develop myopia:

  1. Lifestyle
  2. Family History

Modern lifestyles impact the development of myopia with

  1. Low levels of outdoor activity
  2. Low levels of light exposure
  3. Prolonged close tasks – such as reading and gaming on portable devices

Family history can contribute to the chance of developing myopia, particularly if both parents are myopic.

Pandemic trend concerning

The recent trend is concerning because the earlier myopia starts, the more quickly it deteriorates, which results in worse vision in adulthood.

An adult with high myopia has an increased risk of permanent blindness because of macular degeneration, cataracts and tears or detachment of the retina.

Pauline Kang, senior lecturer at UNSW School of Optometry & Vision Science, and her research team tracked 17 patients at their Myopia Clinic. On average, the children’s eyesight had deteriorated at nearly twice the rate in 2020 compared with 2019. The team is now analysing their 2021 data.

International studies are also showing a rapid rise in myopia since the pandemic started. One peer-reviewed Chinese study involving 120,000 six-year-olds found a 400% increase in myopia in 2020 compared with 2019, correlating with a period of state-ordered home confinement.

In 2021 Hong Kong researchers found a 10% rise in myopia among 709 children between the ages of six and eight, affecting nearly one in five of the children studied.

Australian figures show the percentage of 17-year-olds with myopia, had already risen from 20 to 30% before the pandemic.

Research on reducing risk

Research has shown that the simplest action for at-risk children and those with early myopia is to spend more time outdoors. Over 4,000 children (half aged 12 and the other half aged 6) participated in the Sydney Myopia Survey.  Even the children with high levels of near work got the benefit of more time spent outdoors.

Trials in Australia and Overseas point to an ideal of somewhere between 10-15 hours a week outdoors is enough to prevent the development of myopia.