What does increased time spent indoors mean for the health of our kids eyes?

The Coronavirus Pandemic has seen the Australian population and indeed a large part of the world’s population retreat inside, in response to social isolation measures to ‘flatten the curve’ of the epidemic.

This has been accompanied by concern about increased health issues including anxiety and depression, domestic violence, and worsening chronic health conditions due to poorer access to health care.

Another global epidemic we have been dealing with for some time already is the myopia epidemic.

Myopia, also known as nearsightedness or shortsightedness, is a common condition where objects that are near are clear, but distant objects appear blurry.

Myopia typically begins in childhood (6-10 years old) and usually gets worse in early adulthood. It is the most common cause of impaired vision in people aged less than 40 years. The worldwide prevalence of myopia is increasing, and it is expected that nearly half of the people on the planet will be nearsighted by 2050.

Much work has been done on trying to understand the biggest drivers of progressive myopia. We know from this work, that time spent inside and the amount of near work (reading, computers, devices etc) kids do both have the greatest impact on the prevalence of myopia in the community and on the rate of myopia progression.

What does this mean for myopia in our children amidst social isolation measures? Schools have been closed and learning transitioned to online methods, we are being discouraged from venturing outside unless for essential activity, playgrounds, shops, sporting clubs and beaches are closed in some parts the country. Australia is preparing for at least 6 months of these restrictions in one form or another.

What can you do as a parent to minimise the risk of your child’s myopia deteriorating in this time?

The message for parents is really not significantly different to what we should be doing outside of the Coronavirus restrictions – encourage as much outdoors play as possible and discourage excessive near work.

Some key points to consider include:

  1. Try to get your kids outside for at least 1-2 hours every day. This may be going for a walk with the family, playing in the back yard, or going for a bike ride. There are lots of activities we are all permitted to do so long as we keep our social distance of 1.5m from others.
  2. Encourage your kids to do any near activity outdoors where practical or at least with as much natural light as possible. We know that exposure to natural light is protective against myopia progression and any light exposure outside is going to be more than you’ll get inside (even on a cloudy day).
  3. It’s inevitable that our kids will be drawn towards screens. If you choose to have screens and devices available to your kids outside of their school work it is important to not allow them to over-indulge – try to limit recreational screen use to 1-2 hours a day. One approach is to have a regular scheduled time for screen use so children know when to expect it and for how long, and stick to it. Reserve any exceptions to this rule for special occasions e.g. family video calls.
  4. Be sure to encourage regular breaks from near intensive tasks such as reading e.g 10 minutes break every 30-40 minutes. Any near work should be done inside with good lighting (ie room lights and the desk light on) and encourage your kids to keep anything they are reading at least 40cm away.

Try to stay positive. Social distancing doesn’t mean you need to keep the kids inside. If you can focus on one thing then encouraging outdoor play is probably the easiest and best thing you can for your kids.  Not only will this have a positive impact on their myopia, it will also improve their mental and physical health.

This article was written by Dr Antony Clark. Dr Clark is a consultant ophthalmologist at the Lions Eye Institute and at Sir Charles Gairdner and Perth Children’s Hospitals. He completed his ophthalmology training in Western Australia before undertaking two years of sub-speciality fellowship training at the University of Toronto in Canada. His first fellowship was in glaucoma and anterior segment surgery, and the second in paediatric ophthalmology and strabismus at the world-renowned Hospital for Sick Children. Dr Clark has a PhD in public health and continues his interests in epidemiology and clinical ophthalmic research.

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