Nearsightedness and vision impairments are more prevalent in teens and young children than ever before.
This sudden uptick in myopia, or nearsightedness, is being seen in youth around the world. The Atlantic reported that the shift has been the most dramatic in East and Southeast Asia. The proportion of teenagers and young adults with myopia has jumped from roughly a quarter of the demographic to more than 80% in just over half a century. Myopia has become so prevalent in China that it has reportedly become a national-security concern, as the military needs pilots with excellent vision.
Myopia is usually a genetic condition. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, in 2019, 25.3% of children aged 2–17 years wore glasses or contact lenses, and the percentage increased with age among both boys and girls. The reported percentage was higher among girls than boys overall and among those aged 6–11 years and 12–17 years, but not in the youngest age group, according to the study.
A study done in the United States in the early 2000s, the last time a national survey of nearsightedness was conducted, found that 42 percent of 12 to 54-year-olds were myopic.
Some of the contributors to this severe increase in nearsightedness include smartphones, virtual learning, and the changing social norms surrounding screen use, especially after the pandemic.
Some of the lowest rates of nearsightedness are found in developing countries in Africa and South America. In one study, the global pattern of myopia was noted as being more pronounced in more developed and urban countries. The study concluded that this was partly due to electronic usage in education.
“Extreme nearsightedness can cause a whole array of very serious problems like retinal detachments, degeneration of the choroid – which is the structure of the eye. It can even cause cataracts and glaucoma,” Dr. Hina Robertson, a therapeutic optometrist and optometric glaucoma specialist for Parkland Health, told NBC DFW.
“So those are really serious permanent eye conditions that are caused by excess growth of the eye, which is nearsightedness,” she said.
Dr. Robertson stated a general rule is that children under the age of two should have zero screen time, according to the World Health Organization. Children under five years old should have just one hour of screen time. However, many parents use smartphones and tablets to entertain their children and babies, exceeding the recommended amount of screen time.
Evidence indicates that even as little as an hour of outdoor time and recreation per day can help to reduce a child’s risk of being nearsighted, according to the Parkland Health website.
“Doing outdoor activities is really great. It is a good replacement for screen time. Because that way you’re kind of killing two birds with one stone and having them be outside to get that good, healthy, fresh air and sunlight,” said Dr. Robertson.
Dr. Robertson recommends that every child get an eye exam at 5 years old, no matter the child’s genetic or family eyesight history. If all goes well, she recommends the next eye exam occur at 10 years old.
“A lot of the eyestrain symptoms are temporary. Just reducing that screen time and stepping away from it, using those glare filters, having good lighting in the room, and getting that eye exam to correct those undiagnosed issues can usually cause a lot of those problems to go away,” she said. “I think that’s important in stopping these things early – it can really have some really great outcomes.”
If current trends continue, one study estimates that half of the world’s population will be myopic by 2050.