Over the past year, children’s activities have been limited to the confinement of their homes. Many of them went to school online or worked from home while still using screens for downtime.
Due to these new virtual adaptations, screen time increased for many individuals worldwide. Children, in particular, have spent an increased amount of time using screens for online school and as entertainment.
Just how much more screen time? The chart below reveals the number of children and teens from the United States who spent more than four hours daily using electronic devices before and during the coronavirus pandemic. Screen time has practically doubled across all age groups.
Unfortunately, this increased screen time for children has resulted in higher cases of myopia.
What is myopia?
Myopia, also known as nearsightedness, has increased due to the shift to virtual learning. “There is a link between how much close work we do during development and the progression of nearsightedness,” Dr. Katherine Harkins, 2020 On-site optometrist notes. “With kids doing remote schooling, the amount of near work has increased, which increases the risk of nearsightedness.
According to an interview in the Wall Street Journal, the “...leading theory behind rising myopia rates posits that when children look at screens or books for prolonged periods, the eye adjusts to accommodate a close focus, which may change and elongate the shape of the eye, leading to myopia.” Other effects from virtual school include digital eye strain, blurry vision, eye fatigue, and headaches. These symptoms usually subside after a few hours, but the question remains if there are longer-term consequences.
How has the pandemic increased rates of myopia in children?
Continuous screentime with little breaks takes a toll on one’s eye. Children stay put all day while watching a screen to participate in virtual school. Julia A. Haller, the ophthalmologist-in-chief at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia says, “We know that focusing up close and not being outside has increased the rate of myopia.” People tend to look farther away while they’re outside. Due to the significant decrease in time spent outdoors, children don’t practice adjusting their eyes to farther objects. The past year has been filled with close-up screen time and less outside playtime.
In a recent study by JAMA Ophthalmology, researchers in China studied myopia rates in 120,000 children who were required to stay at home during the pandemic. They found that myopia rates in children aged six to eight had tripled compared to the last five years. The proof of increasing myopia rates doesn’t stop there:
Judith Lavrich, an assistant clinical professor at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, and her colleagues surveyed 110 children ranging from 10 to 17 years old in the first five months of 2021. None of the children reported having vision problems prior to the study. After checking their sight after five months of virtual school ranging from three to 10 hours a day, “the majority of [the] kids had acute eye symptoms.” The kids reported having eye aches, headaches, blurry vision, and double vision. Not only that, many kids would see words moving around on the page or losing their place when reading.
Half of the kids surveyed said they also experienced tearing, burning, noticing the need to rub their eyes more often, and the feeling of something else present within their eyes. Seeing as the majority of children with no prior eye issues had all developed symptoms over quarantine raised multiple concerns. Doctors within the U.S. said prescriptions for worsening vision have significantly increased.
What could happen if left untreated?
If someone develops high myopia, there is an increased risk of:
- Refractive errors of six diopters or more
- Retinal holes or tears
Megan Collins, a pediatric ophthalmologist at the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute in Baltimore says “the earlier one develops myopia, the greater the risk of developing vision-threatening eye conditions later.” She goes on to say, “I’ve seen some younger kids that last year when I saw them they had no significant refractive error. Nothing that required glasses. Within a year they’ve had a pretty substantial change in their vision.”
How do you avoid myopia symptoms?
It is recommended that children spend one hour or more playing outside to avoid myopia symptoms. Dr. Harkins says, “there are studies that show outdoor play reduces the risk of nearsightedness. We need to remind our kids to take a break from video games and go outside and play!”
Other helpful myopia deterrents include special contact lenses and experiments that use “low dose” dilating drops. We recommend the 20/20/20 rule: every 20 minutes of screen time, take a 20-second break to look 20 feet away. This will give your eye a break to adjust and practice looking further away.
But myopia isn’t the only eye condition to look out for. “There has been an increase in dry eye findings among kids because so much school time and playtime ends up being on screens,” Dr. Harkins notes. “Studies show that we blink about one-fourth the number of times we normally do when we're looking at screens. Not blinking increases dry eye risk.”
The increased pandemic screentime has affected adults too. Although adults don’t easily develop myopia because eye growth stabilizes after childhood, they have been shown to increasingly report other eye symptoms including dry eye. Adults and children are advised to take screen breaks and blink more often.
Looking for an exam to check your eyes after a year’s worth of pandemic screentime? 2020 On-site offers mobile services that bring eye care and vision treatments to you. Our mobile vision clinics travel to schools, offices, and local neighborhoods in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire to serve the community with comprehensive eye exams that are quick and easy.
We welcome patients aged eight and older. Schedule an appointment to check your child’s eyes (and don’t be afraid to sign yourself up too!) today.