Is your child's eyesight getting worse? It could be due to online learning, experts say

·4 min read
Eight-year-old Ambrose Tam practises putting in corrective lenses worn at night as part of a treatment to slow down the progression of his myopia.  (Grant Linton/CBC - image credit)
Eight-year-old Ambrose Tam practises putting in corrective lenses worn at night as part of a treatment to slow down the progression of his myopia. (Grant Linton/CBC - image credit)

Ambrose Tam says he noticed in the fall, when school was all virtual and he had to sit in from of a computer much of the day, that his eyesight was getting worse.

"When I looked at the screen, so much looked blurry," he told CBC Toronto.

The eight-year-old is getting fitted for eye braces — corrective lenses worn at night — part of a treatment aimed at slowing down the progression of his myopia.

His mom, Silky Tsang, says she is pretty sure her son's rapidly worsening nearsightedness is related to online schooling.

"The more screen time they are getting, the less time they're spending doing other things," she said. "So, there are some things you need to do online, but we would want to see him do more stuff that's outside."

Optometrists say they're concerned that deteriorating eye health among children may be yet another unforeseen side-effect of the the COVID-19 pandemic, and the lockdowns that have come with it. They say they're seeing an increase in what they call COVID myopia, a condition they suspect is related to online schooling as kids spend more time indoors staring at laptops and tablets.

Ambrose's mom, Silky Tsang, is highly myopic, but says her son's nearsightedness has progressed quite rapidly during the pandemic. She suspects that's due to increased screen time due to online schooling.
Ambrose's mom, Silky Tsang, is highly myopic, but says her son's nearsightedness has progressed quite rapidly during the pandemic. She suspects that's due to increased screen time due to online schooling.(Grant Linton/CBC)

Dr Albert Ng, an optometrist who specializes in treating myopia, is Ambrose's eye doctor. He says he's noticed a trend among his younger patients; a dramatic progression in myopia over a short period of time.

He says there are genetic factors, as Tam's mother is highly myopic. But what shocks Ng is how rapidly the boy's nearsightedness has progressed since last August and how much stronger his lense prescription has to be to compensate for it. .

"So, this is actually scary to us and of course [it]is scary for the parents too."

Worsening myopia could be linked to online learning, study finds

Ng points to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Ophthalmology that found "home confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic appeared to be associated with a significant myopic shift for children aged six to eight years."

Researchers in China compared annual eye screenings of 123,535 children aged six to 13 from 2015 to 2020. They found alarming rates of myopia progression in children in a region that was locked down for six months. Some needed corrective lenses 1.4 to three times higher than they had needed in the previous five years before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Ontario Association of Optometrists says while there has been a rise in myopia among children for several decades, online learning seems to have accelerated the trend. And the more kids having myopia earlier in life have them concerned that they'll face more serious problems down the road.

Dr. Debbie Jones, a clinical professor at the School of Optometry and Vision Science at the University of Waterloo, says kids who need high lense prescriptions for myopia at an early age run the risk of even more serious eye conditions when they get older.

"With high prescriptions, there's all sorts of risks of long term effects, such as cataracts, glaucoma, retinal degeneration that can have a significant impact on vision," she said.

"Also, the impact of higher prescriptions is they may be less eligible for refractive surgery, for example laser surgery, when they're older or the results may be less successful."

Dr. Debbie Jones, a clinical professor at the University of Waterloo, says myopia requiring strong lense prescriptions in young children can lead to serious problems later in life.
Dr. Debbie Jones, a clinical professor at the University of Waterloo, says myopia requiring strong lense prescriptions in young children can lead to serious problems later in life. (CBC)

She recommends children see an eye specialist early and often and that screen time be limited if possible or simply take a break every 20 minutes.

While Ng does prescribe corrective lenses and special drops that can slow myopia in children — he agrees there are simple solutions that could help improve their vision and eye health down the road.

"First of all, number one is to get outside," he said.

"So, if they have a break one to one and a half hours outside, the bright light helps reduce the risk of progression in myopia."