Short-sightedness isn’t a topic I usually address. However, it’s such an important topic I feel it’s important to talk about it in relation to our children’s health.
Our kids’ increased use of electronic devices isn’t helping their waistlines or fitness levels, but what about their eyesight?
There’s not a lot of research about this at the moment, but there has been a massive rise around the globe in short-sightedness – or myopia – over recent decades.
“We know that myopia or short-sightedness is becoming more common,” says Chris Hammond, professor of ophthalmology at King’s College London and consultant ophthalmic surgeon at St Thomas’ Hospital.
“It has reached epidemic levels in East Asia, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, where approaching 90% of 18-year-olds are now short-sighted.
“In Europe, it’s potentially getting up to 40% to 50% of young adults in their mid-20s who are short-sighted now in Western Europe. It’s been gradually rising over the decades of the 20th Century from around 20-30%.” (BBC)
Why is short-sightedness becoming more common?
Annegret Dahlmann-Noor, consultant ophthalmologist at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London told the BBC it is due to a lack of natural light.
“The main factor seems to be a lack of exposure to direct sunlight. Children who study a lot and who use computers or smartphones or tablet computers a lot have less opportunity to run around outside. Therefore, they are less exposed to sunshine and at more risk of developing short-sightedness.”
Prof Hammond says:
“It may be that there’s no coincidence that in East Asian countries, the most myopic ones all correlate with the maths league tables.
“These kids are being pushed with very intensive education from a very young age and spend a lot of time indoors studying everything close up and very little time outdoors.
“Therefore the concern is that all close work – like playing with the iPad and iPhone – carries the potential that it could make them more short-sighted.”
How do we combat short-sightedness?
1. Reduce their screen time
Dr Dahlmann-Noor says trying to stop screen use is probably an unrealistic aspiration.
“You can only tell them that it might make their eyes uncomfortable, it might make them short-sighted and they should not use it as much as they like to.
“But, hand on heart, I don’t think we can get away from this because they also have to do their school homework on laptops and iPads and they do their searches for background information on screens.
“If you’re a teenager and you have got revision to do for GCSEs or A-levels then you can’t really switch off, can you? So I don’t think we will be reducing the screen use, really, in years to come.”
Play outdoors more
The best thing to do is to get children playing outside as much as possible.
“Protective of myopia development is time outdoors – sport and leisure outdoors are protective of eyesight,” says Prof Hammond.
“In a perfect world, probably on average across the week and the weekend, two hours a day outdoors is protective of becoming short-sighted in children.”
Myopia research in Sydney, Australia shows that only 3% of Chinese-heritage children living in Sydney – who spent two hours a day outdoors – are short-sighted by the age of six, compared to nearly 30% of six-year-olds in Singapore.
Rethink their diet
Dr Dahlmann-Noor says diet is also an area where families can help with eyesight.
“We always tell parents about omega-3 essential fatty acids, and vitamins A, C and E and nutrients that are good for the back of the eye.
“Healthy diet really is important – in terms of getting oily fish, avocados, green vegetables, green leafy vegetables as much as possible.
“Or in children, all these supplements that you can buy over the counter that are good for the brain, also happen to be good for the eyes – they’re just not marketed for that.”
She also recommends regular annual eye checks.
How to spot if your child is becoming short-sighted
According to NHS Choices, signs that your child may be short-sighted include:
- needing to sit near the front of the class at school because they find it difficult to read the whiteboard
- sitting close to the television
- complaining of headaches or tired eyes
- regularly rubbing their eyes
When someone’s short-sighted, the eyes have grown slightly too long, which means light rays focus just in front of the retina, at the back of the eye, so distant objects to appear blurred, but close objects are seen clearly.