Children are at risk of developing short-sightedness as screen time cuts into outdoor playtime, reducing their exposure to outside light, a study has found.
Edith Cowan University Medical Sciences professor Wei Wang co-authored a recent study of nearly 5,000 Year 11 and 12 students in Beijing and found the levels of myopia were more than 80 per cent.
He said while in China there are lower levels of natural light and a highly competitive academic culture which kept children indoors, the study had a bearing on Australian kids as well.
“The outside, natural environment is really important for your eyes, the brightness and also the long distance, the colours, nature relaxes your eye,” he said.
I think it is a time bomb, sometime later, … Australia and developed countries will have the same problem as Asia.Professor Wei Wang
“While they play, children are not keeping their concentration to one thing, this helps the muscles of the eye relax.”
He said even though Australia has an environment more conducive to being outdoors, children are choosing to stay inside.
“Increased screen time worries me here in Australia, because here some kids addict themselves to games and computers and it is a huge risk,” he said.
“There never used to be such high incidence of myopia here.
“I think it is a time bomb, sometime later … Australia and developed countries will have the same problem as Asia.”
Myopia on the rise in Australia, US
Brien Holden Vision Institute Myopia program leader Padmaja Sankaridurg said in Australia short-sightedness in children was on the rise.
She said a Sydney study of 12-year-olds found in 2004, 12 per cent had myopia, while in 2009 it was up to 19 per cent, and now globally it was at about 30 per cent of the population.
When we prescribe glasses to children, all we are doing is correcting the defect that has happened because the eyeball has increased in size and the child can’t see correctly in the distance, but we are not correcting the problem.Associate professor Padmaja Sankaridurg
Studies showed in the United States in 2000 it was 25 per cent, but levels had jumped to around 40 per cent.
“It’s a big public health issue in many countries,” Associate Professor Sankaridurg said.
“When we prescribe glasses to children, all we are doing is correcting the defect that has happened because the eyeball has increased in size and the child can’t see correctly in the distance, but we are not correcting the problem.
“It is normally progressive, at higher levels of myopia, you have higher risk of developing things like glaucoma, cataracts and myopic macular degeneration.”
She said in many countries where myopia is a problem, myopic macular degeneration is one of the leading causes of blindness and vision impairment.
Children’s eyes ‘not built’ for intense screen exposure
Perth-based optometrist and former president of the Optometrists Association Australia, Stephen Leslie, said children are more at risk of developing short-sightedness as their eyes are still growing.
He said while genetics or family history is a factor, environment played an important role.
If you spend less than 1.5 hours per day outside you’re at moderate to high risk of becoming short-sighted.Optometrist Stephen Leslie
“Genetics can make it happen more easily, but the major factor that impacts on becoming short-sighted is what you do with your eyes; how much close work you do and how much time you spend outside,” he said.
“If you spend less than 1.5 hours per day outside you’re at moderate to high risk of becoming short-sighted.
“Children who spend more than two hours a day on screen time, whether it be computers, or iPhones, etc, are two to three times more likely to become short-sighted than normal.”
He said the problem was not confined to time spent at home, but also in schools.
“What is happening is many schools are introducing computers at relatively earlier and earlier ages, even in lower primary school,” he said.
“So children are spending long periods of time looking at a computer screen without a break in class, then they come home use computers for homework, use screen time for computer games, talking to friends or watching movies, so the screen time throughout the day can be up to three to four to five hours a day.
“Our eyes just aren’t built for that.”
Mr Leslie said smartphones are also an increasing problem.
“We know from research that when we read, our ideal situation is about the length of our forearm from our nose, but if you watch many children you’ll see that their iPhone is much closer than that,” he said.
Nature Play WA chief executive Griffin Longley said the increase in rates of myopia in young people was alarming.
“Research out by Telstra earlier this year found that 64 per cent of children from the ages of three to 17 owned a smartphone, and that they spent an average of 23 hours a week on that device,” he said.
“Given that kids are only awake for 12 hours a day, you are talking about two days out of seven, waking hours, spent on a smartphone.
“Add to that home-based screens, and you are starting to clock up some amazing hours, and it is no surprise that is having an impact on something as fundamental as our eyesight.”