I remember when my mother used to tell me not to sit too close to the TV because it was bad for my eyes. I used to think that was something she made up, just to get me away from the TV. It turns out that she was right. It is bad for your eyes to focus on something up close for too long at one time. It is especially bad for young children whose eyes are still growing and developing. Let’s talk today about why it is more important now than ever that we pay attention to this.
Today I am not talking about genetic factors, which certainly can influence development of near or far-sightedness. We’re just going to talk about environmental influences on eye health. And primarily talking about near-sightedness.
What is myopia?
Myopia is the medical term for near-sightedness. It means that you can see objects near to you clearly, but objects farther away are blurry. It occurs when the shape of your eye causes light rays to bend incorrectly, focusing images in front of your retina instead of on your retina.
Did you know that myopia is rapidly increasing in the world?
There has been a rapid rise in myopia in the world over the past two decades. This has been most noticeable in East Asia, where more than 90% of teenagers and young adults are near-sighted today. In the US, prevalence of myopia doubled from 20% to 40% in the past three decades.
Can sitting too close to the TV cause near-sightedness?
There have been several studies that indicate that when children spend too much time focusing on something near to them, such as a TV or other screen, they are more likely to develop myopia. Focusing for long periods of time up close, without much distance focusing, impacts the developing eye in younger children. Your eyes develop a preference you might say, to seeing near things.
Those who already have myopia, whatever the cause, can develop worsening myopia from too much near focusing, requiring stronger prescription glasses.
Is there something that protects against developing myopia?
Sun or natural light exposure – Time spent outdoors in natural sunlight has shown to be protective against the onset and progression of myopia. Studies have shown an over 50% decrease in the risk of myopia progression in children who spend at least 11 hours outdoors per week.
In Taiwan in 2010, where the prevalence of myopia was high, Taiwanese schools implemented a program that encourages teachers to take children outdoors for 120 minutes every day. Within 5 years, the prevalence of myopia decreased continuously, reversing the trend of the previous decade.
Why is this an important topic right now?
Children have been increasing their screen time for several years now. In the US, the use of laptops, tablets, and smart phones is now widespread, even in preschool age children. According to a Common Sense Media report released in October 2019, the use of screens by children and teenagers in the US was on average 5 hours per day in the 8-12 year old age group, and 7.5 hours per day in the 13-18 year old age group. This was prior to COVID-19 entering the picture!
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of electronic screens has markedly increased. With virtual learning, some schools have children using these devices for 6 hours a day, with only a few 5-minute breaks. Most of the virtual school programs do not include any mandatory outdoor activity or physical education component.
This is just the educational use of screens! When you add the use of screens for video games, watching TikTok videos, and all the other recreational uses, this can drastically increase the near focusing time for our kids. Many younger children are now becoming more familiar with digital devices, which can further increase their recreational screen time.
This is a very important topic right now. We need to be aware to help protect our own eye health, but more importantly, we need to protect the eye health of our children.
Next week we will talk about some other eye problems associated with increased screen time, along with things that you can do to help combat these problems.
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Dr. Anita Bennett MD – Health Tip Content Editor