Australian parents are being urged to get their children’s eyes tested ahead of the 2021 school year after screen time increased in 2020 due to online learning and spending more time at home.
The extra time spent in front of iPads, iPhones, laptops and TVs occurred because of COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns.
As a result, optometrist Sophie Koh said Australian eye doctors anecdotally reported more eye issues in children; noting cases of eye strain or increased myopia, also known as short-sightedness.
Her comments have been supported by a recent Chinese study involving more than 120,000 children aged six to eight.
It showed a 400 per cent increase in the number of six-year-olds that became shortsighted during the lockdown compared with figures from 2015 to 2019.
“When you’re young, your eye gets feedback from your environment and keeps growing until the middle of childhood, so when you have myopia it means your eyeball is too long for what it should be and you get blurry images at the back of the eye,” Ms Koh said.
“Studies have shown that natural daylight for at least one to two hours a day stops the eyeball from elongating and developing short-sightedness.
“It’s not immediately to do with screen time at home, but it is a big factor of why kids stay home. On balance, if kids are having more screen time at home, there is less time outside, and it’s the daylight feedback for the eye that stops it from being shortsighted.”
Ms Koh recommended parents encourage regular breaks from screens, enforcing the 20-20 rule; for every 20 minutes of screen time, look 20 feet (six metres) away so they eyes don’t remain locked at 40-60cm ahead.
She also said children needed to balance screen time with green time, ensuring they spend time outside in the natural daylight.
“The eye muscle needs moments where it’s not converting or focusing up close because as human beings we’re not designed to be staring at a screen up close all day, every day for hours.”
Bupa optometrist Karen Makin said undiagnosed vision problems could be associated with educational, physical and social development difficulties among children.
“The COVID-19 pandemic certainly changed the way children learnt, socialised and entertained themselves, with many exposed to screens for many hours a day learning, socialising or relaxing in front of the TV,” she said.
“Parents who suspect their child has developed a vision impairment or is experiencing a deterioration of an existing condition should visit an optometrist ahead of the start of Term 1.
“Something as simple as a pair of glasses or contacts can make a significant and immediate difference to a child’s day-to-day life and give them the best chance at succeeding at school.”
Optometrists are also encouraging parents and teachers to notice signs of vision impairments in children.
They can be identified if a child is squinting, has watery eyes, or experiences general tiredness and cannot concentrate properly.
Optometry Australia professionals recommend eye examinations for all children before they start school — around the age of four — and again every two to three years throughout life.