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Studies suggest the rate of childhood myopia has doubled in the past 50 years … could screens be to blame?

Over a period of eight years, researchers involved in the Multi-Ethnic Pediatric Eye Disease Study examined the eyes of more than 9,000 children between the ages of 6 months and 6 years in a Los Angeles eye care clinic. This massive study — the largest ever conducted — discovered an alarming trend: In the past 50 years, rates of myopia in children have more than doubled. These findings are consistent with other studies that examined increases in myopia among adolescents and adults.

Myopia, or nearsightedness, is a condition in which objects that are close can be seen clearly, while objects that are far away appear quite blurry. While this disease cannot be cured, its progression can be slowed with appropriate eye care, treatment and lifestyle changes. Physicians, scientists and parents are asking the same question: What is causing this dramatic change in vision?

The Impact of Advances in Technology

Rohit Varma, M.D., M.P.H. and director of the USC Eye Institute, has a theory. Varma believes that the increase in use of screens, such as those on smartphones and tablets, is impacting the health of children. The rise in screen-related activities, coupled with a decrease in exposure to outdoor light, is damaging children’s vision.

“While research shows there is a genetic component, the rapid proliferation of myopia in the matter of a few decades among Asians suggests that close-up work and use of mobile devices and screens on a daily basis, combined with a lack of proper lighting or sunlight, may be the real culprit behind these dramatic increases,” Varma said. “More research is needed to uncover how these environmental or behavioral factors may affect the development or progression of eye disease.”

Child using an iPad

Children’s Increased Risk of Eye Strain

Adults are not immune to eye-related issues caused by overuse of screens; however, there can be a greater impact on children because of differences in children’s behavior during computer, phone and tablet usage. For example, children have tendency to use their electronics for a long period of time without taking a break, as they often ignore physical discomfort when deeply engaged in an activity they enjoy. Dry eyes, headache and other signs of eye strain may not prompt them to put screens away and do something else. In addition, children are unlikely to correct ergonomic and environmental issues that cause physical stress. They will continue to use electronics despite glare, awkward angles and inappropriate lighting.

While additional research is necessary to confirm the impact of screen use on children’s health, the evidence indicates that there is a link. Fortunately, there are a number of steps parents can take to prevent or slow the progression of eye disease due to excessive screen time:

  • Regular, comprehensive eye exams with an experienced Kansas City Ophthalmologist.
  • Use of corrective lenses, as prescribed.
  • Limits on continuous screen-related activity — at minimum, children should take a 10-minute break every hour.
  • Careful attention to ergonomic setup, glare and lighting in the area where children use screens.

The fact is that smartphones, tablets and computers are here to stay — and they do offer many benefits in education and entertainment. Students have important information available at their fingertips, and online games offer a new method of finding and interacting with friends. However, there is no need to trade off children’s vision for access to technology. A few preventative steps can make all the difference in the development and progression of myopia in children.

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