Children spending more time inside with screens during the COVID pandemic has resulted in a rise in childhood short-sightedness.

Optometrists are seeing more children needing glasses than before the pandemic, and the children were showing problems earlier, those age six or seven, where myopia usually is found in children aged eight or nine.

NSW and Victoria saw a higher rate of problems, which could be explained as those states were under the longest lockdowns requiring remote learning.

Pandemic trend concerning

The increased numbers are concerning because the earlier myopia starts, the more quickly it deteriorates. The child then grows into an adult with worse vision, and potentially high myopia. High myopia is a relatively severe level of short-sightedness that can be associated with significant eye health complications.

An adult with high myopia has an increased risk of permanent blindness because of macular degeneration, cataracts and tears or detachment of the retina.

A UNSW investigation found that children’s eyesight had deteriorated at nearly twice the rate in 2020 compared with 2019.

International studies are also showing a similar rise. A Chinese study involving 120,000 six-year-olds found a 400% increase in myopia in 2020 compared with 2019, correlating with a period of state-ordered home confinement.

Researchers in Hong Kong also reported a 10% rise in myopia among 709 children between the ages of six and eight.

Australian figures show the percentage of 17-year-olds with myopia, had already risen from 20 to 30% before the pandemic.

What is myopia?

Myopia, also known as short-sightedness, is where a person can’t see distant objects clearly, but close objects can be seen clearly.

Myopia is a result of lights rays focusing on a point in front of the eye’s retina, instead of directly on it. This is because the eyeball is either too long, or the cornea is too curved for the length of the eyeball.

Myopia usually begins in younger children and progresses as they get older.

The myopic eye can increase the lifetime risks of serious eye conditions including myopic maculopathy, retinal detachment, cataracts and glaucoma.

When should children have their eyes tested?

These studies reinforce how important it is for all children to have their eyes tested before they start school - even if they are not experiencing any symptoms.

And continue those tests regularly – about every 1-2 years, particularly if there is a family history of myopia.

Managing myopia in its early stages can slow its progression, reducing the potential risk of developing high myopia and its associated conditions. This involves correcting the blurred distance vision associated with myopia and discussing and incorporating treatments to slow down the progression of myopia.

You can have your child checked earlier than pre-school  if you notice your child’s eye is turned inward or outward, they tilt their head to one side, rub their eyes, complain of difficulty seeing or there is a family history of vision problems.

How to tell if your child should be checked for Myopia

Optometry Australia estimates one in five school children have an undetected vision problem, as young children tend to assume everyone sees the world the same way they do.

Symptoms in children include:

  1. Your child may complain of blurry vision, for instance they may not be able to read what is on the board at school.
  1. You may notice them squinting when looking at things in the distance, or squinting in general.
  1. They are frequently rubbing their eyes
  1. Your child may be experiencing frequent headaches.

Key statistics

  1. 76% of parents of children under 12 believe glasses are the best solution if a primary school aged child is diagnosed with myopia. In fact, there are many options that should be discussed and considered if your child is diagnosed with myopia.
  1. 49% of parents of children aged 17 and under admit they do not know what causes myopia.
  1. Only 12% of parents know that lifestyle factors have an impact on child myopia.
  1. 31% of Australian kids (17 and under) have never been to an optometrist to have an eye test.
  1. 44% of children have not been to an optometrist to have an eye test before their ninth birthday.

Environmental factors contribute to developing myopia

Research shows that children need to spend two hours a day outside in bright light to help put off the onset of myopia.

Over 4,000 children participated in the Sydney Myopia Survey.  Even the children with high levels of near work got a benefit from spending more time spent outdoors.

These factors have been shown to impact the development of myopia -

  1. Low levels of outdoor activity
  2. Low levels of light exposure
  3. Prolonged close tasks – such as reading and gaming on portable devices
  4. Family history can contribute to the chance of developing myopia, particularly if both parents are myopic.

What can I do to help prevent my child’s myopia from getting worse?

There are several treatments which can slow the progression of myopia in children and teens.

Treatments that you should discuss with your optometrist include the use of atropine eye drops, orthokeratology and multifocal/bifocal glasses or multifocal contact lenses. The treatments can bring about changes in the structure and focus of the eye.

Slowing the progression of myopia in children may prevent the development of severe myopia (or high myopia), which can cause serious eye health problems in adulthood.