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Information and insights to help you keep your family safe

  • Barry Kick

Lockdown boost to screen time blamed for rise in short-sightedness in children.

Never mind the kids eyes going square with too much telly, it seems the increase in screen time caused by lockdowns might be having a real and noticeable effect on our children's eyesight.

The College of Ophthalmologists has spoken out following the publication of a study in the British Journal of Ophthalmology which examined the effect of Covid19 on myopia (short-sightedness) in children. The study, conducted in Hong Kong, looked at children aged six to eight and found a 2.5 fold potential increase in myopia associated with greater use of screens and reduced time outdoors during lockdown.

The researchers recruited one group of schoolchildren in 2015, and a second when the pandemic began. The former group was followed up after three years and the latter after eight months with the team carrying out eye examinations and also asking children about the amount of time they spent outdoors and on screens or other near work.

The results, from 1,084 children in the 2015 group and 709 children in the Covid-era group, reveal that there was actually more diagnoses of short-sightedness in the former group, with about one in three children developing myopia over the three years, compared with roughly one in five of the Covid-era group developing it over eight months. The key thing here though is the timescale - when taking into account the follow-up duration of each cohort, the team calculates an annual incidence of myopia of almost 30% in the locked down group, compared with just under 12% in the pre-Covid 2015 group. It will be interesting to see what the final results look like once the follow up periods match in a couple of years.

At the same time, the study revealed dramatic changes in outdoor time between the recruitment and follow-up of the Covid-era children, falling from around 75 minutes a day to just 24 in lockdown. Meanwhile, the children’s time on near work, including use of screens, increased from just under 3.5 hours a day to approximately 8 hours per day.

Dr Jason Yam (one of the researchers involved with this study) of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, explained that “near work” – for example reading, writing or digital device use – is believed to be a risk factor for myopia, while increased outdoor time has been consistently shown to have a protective role.

The advice from The College of Ophthalmologists is for children ages 5-12 to spend at least two hours per day outside. This enables their eyes to relax and focus on objects further away - it makes sense when you think about it! There is also some evidence that sunlight affects the way children's eyes grow and affects their shape. I recognise that many of the readers of this blog will be living in the UK where finding a two hour window with decent weather can be an added the real world I think this advice means get the kids out of the house whenever you can!

The College of Ophthalmologists is calling for more research into the long-term effects of device use by children on their eyes, screens have got a lot nearer to our faces with the development of smartphones and tablets so this is especially important.

In the meantime their advice is to get your children's eyes checked - they may well be overdue as mine were. Also keep an eye out for children edging closer to television screens.

My own experience with short-sightedness might mean I am more aware of the problem, before I got glasses as a kid I was sat so close to the TV watching Dukes of Hazzard I doubled as an early remote control!

So I regularly do a little check on their vision by asking them to read a number plate or other distant text I know I wouldn't have been able to read before being lasered to see how they are doing. Hardly scientific or any substitute for a trip to the opticians but it puts my mind to rest knowing how quickly children's eyes can change.

Please like, comment and share - is this issue something you have worried about?

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