The pandemic has changed the way we look at working and learning by forcing us to do more of both from home. However, our increased reliance on screens and digital devices for remote work and virtual school might also be altering our actual vision and worsening a worldwide trend that was already reaching its own epidemic proportions.
Over the past 50 years, the number of Americans who are nearsighted has almost doubled to 41.6 percent. The trend is particularly acute among our youth. According to a 2018 study of Southern California children, nearly 60 percent of kids aged 17 to 19 were myopic, along with half of 11- to 13-year-olds. And that was before COVID-19. Doctors were already attributing the rise in nearsightedness to decreased time outdoors and more hours spent inside glued to personal electronic devices. Now, after more than a year of pandemic lockdowns, during which kids have been forced to also get their education through a screen, U.S. children might be facing an unprecedented challenge when it comes to myopia.
In fact, according to a recent study in JAMA Ophthamology, "the prevalence of near-sightedness, or myopia, increased 1.4 to 3 times in children aged 6 to 8 years during COVID-19 quarantine."
“Kids’ eyes have to work harder doing school on a computer,” says Randall Fuerst, O.D., F.A.A.O., optometrist at EYEcenter Optometric, which serves the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada foothills. "Some kids might rub their eyes and make a connection to the problem being with their vision. But a lot of times, the eyes just simply don’t want to work—they’re tired," he says.
“If nothing else, it’s the overall intensity and the fatigue that’s being put on the eyes, which are staring at the screen for six or eight hours a day," says John Coen, O.D.
The worry is more than just an oncoming generation of adults forced to wear eyeglasses and contact lenses. With myopia, the eyeball stretches and changes shape. People who experience severe myopia, also known as high myopia, face an increased risk of long-term eye problems, such as cataracts, retinal detachment, and glaucoma.
The earlier myopia sets in, the sooner in life those issues are likely to occur and the worse they are likely to get. Also, adults who have trouble with their vision are generally less productive and may lead less fulfilling lives. That’s why, doctors say, it’s imperative for parents to test and monitor a child’s eyesight early on.
“A spectrum of eye diseases can affect children in various age groups,” says Priscilla Chang, O.D., of EYEcenter Optometric. “The recommended timeline for pediatric eye exams starts at newborn. The goal of an eye exam is to identify and prevent vision impairment at the earliest age possible. And vision screenings at the primary care clinic and at school do not replace a comprehensive eye exam.”
In addition to scheduling regular eye exams for children, parents should also remain vigilant about their kids’ eyesight. This can be difficult because youths aren’t always aware that they’re having difficulties—they don’t know how they are normally supposed to see. With distanced learning, it’s even harder to pick up on drastic changes in vision because, while some children have no problem seeing and reading the computer right in front of them, they might not be able to make out letters, shapes, and words that are further away, an issue that would normally be more apparent in a traditional classroom setting.
“If a child has one dominant eye and one lazy eye, they may not know this is abnormal,” says Hannah Mikes, O.D. of EYEcenter Optometric. “If a child develops myopia, they can see up close. Much of the time, they can complete schoolwork. They might even find it normal to need to squint to see far away.”
Modern optometrists can do much more than diagnose myopia and prescribe corrective lenses. There are many new technologies doctors can use in the battle against nearsightedness. These include:
- Eyedrops that curtail the progression of myopia
- MiSight contact lenses that dramatically slow the progression of nearsightedness
- Contact lenses that actually flatten the cornea through nightly wear
There are also things parents can do at home to stem the onset of myopia. For instance, they can implement the 20-20-20 rule: Take a 20-second break from computer work every 20 minutes and look at something at least 20 feet away. It’s also important for parents to talk to their children about the amount of time they spend on devices.
“There’s really no set standard of how long the child should be on the computer each day, but it should be limited,” says Linda Rappa, O.D., of EYEcenter Optometric. “For kids, electronics are fun. They watch YouTube, they’re on TikTok, and they play games. For them, it’s entertainment, so they won’t want to stop. Parents should do their best to regulate the amount of time their children spend on these electronics.”
Dr. Rappa also points out that the blue light emitted from phones, tablets, and other devices also inhibits the production of melatonin, which regulates sleep patterns. Therefore, it’s important to discontinue the use of those devices at least an hour before bedtime in order to get a good night’s sleep.
But even with the most diligent parenting, it’s still vital that these children see an optometrist early and often to ensure a lifetime of healthy sight. Children with nearsightedness should be undergoing some sort of treatment until age 25. This will affect them in more ways than just assuring them of a lifetime of improved vision. Nearsightedness can adversely impact a child’s ability to learn, their self-confidence, and their self-esteem. Better eyesight will improve safety and performance during physical activity and sports. And the ability to see clearly, without the long-term complications of myopia will also provide for an overall better quality of life.
“If we can see them early in life, that’s when we can give them something that will really help,” says Dr. Fuerst. “If we can find the issues sooner, if we can catch these deficiencies early, these kids will have the opportunity to do so much better in life."