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Pandemic May Be Taking a Toll on Children's Vision

Chinese research, US specialists find signs of close work increasing myopia
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 19, 2021 11:00 AM CDT
Children's Vision Could Be Slipping During the Pandemic
Grade school student Bhea Joy Roxas uses her laptop on Monday, her first day of class, at her home in Quezon city, Philippines.   (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

(Newser) – Chinese researchers and American vision specialists are seeing evidence that the eyesight of many children is worsening during the pandemic—possibly because of all their closeup work during remote learning. A study published Thursday in JAMA Ophthalmology compared the results of vision tests given a year apart to 2,000 children, starting when they were in second grade. The rates of nearsightedness increased, up to 30% in one group after a rate of 13% was found before the pandemic, the Daily Journal reports. The study was conducted by researchers from Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou.

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Causes aren't suggested by the study, because researchers didn't collect data on how much time the students spent online or in other activities that might cause eyestrain. But the findings agree with the higher incidence of myopia that specialists in the US are encountering. "Anecdotally, there definitely seems to be an increase—particularly in younger children," said a Chicago myopia specialist. That was happening even before the pandemic, per the Wall Street Journal, but many say the changes in learning are making it worse. Staring at books, as well as screens, could be factors.

"We know that focusing up close and not being outside has increased the rate of myopia," said the chief ophthalmologist at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia. Preliminary data from a study there found new vision problems in most of the 110 children it checked, who were spending three to 10 hours a day in remote learning. They reported symptoms including eye aches, headaches, and blurry or double vision. The schoolchildren sometimes saw words moving around the page or lost their place as they read. One reason for concern is the fact that the earlier a person develops myopia, the greater the risk of developing vision-threatening problems later in life.

An editorial in JAMA Ophthalmology said the combination of findings "should prompt parents, schools and governmental agencies to recognize the potential value of providing children with outdoor activity time and monitoring how much time is spent on near work." Experts also advise adults and children working up close blink more often and consider using artificial tears to combat dry eye. Time spent outside is a major help, experts say, as is following the 20/20/20 rule: After every 20 minutes of screen time, pause and look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. (Read more pandemic stories.)

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