Myopia or near-sightedness is a medical terminology used to describe a common eye condition that causes people to not be able to focus on objects in the distance, but objects near them are clear. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, experts are warning about a newer condition called "quarantine myopia". Quarantine myopia describes a type of myopia seen in young school-aged children who spend an exorbitant amount of time indoor during the pandemic engaging in excessive near-vision related tasks (e.g., reading, computer learning, computer gaming, smart phone and tablet use). This type of home quarantine (pandemic-related lockdown) is associated with a significant increase in the prevalence of myopia as reported in JAMA Ophthalmology.
Here we summarize what was reported in JAMA Ophthalmology:
- Nearly 125,000 children ages 6-13 in China underwent school-based eye tests up to six times from 2015 through 2020.
- From 2015 through 2019 (pre-pandemic), the prevalence of myopia was relatively stable.
- In June 2020 (post-pandemic), the prevalence of myopia rose significantly among children ages 6 to 8 years.
- The prevalence of myopia among 6-year olds increased from 6% in 2019 to 22% in 2020.
- Researchers postulated that younger children's eyes may be more sensitive to environmental changes (e.g., home confinement accompanied with excessive near work).
- Although genetics do influence the course of a child's myopia, the study shows that a serious lifestyle change can push the level of those who are myopic beyond where genetics alone would explain it.
The main implication from this study is that myopia onset and myopia progression can't be explained by genetics alone. They are definitely influenced by an increase amount of near work and a decrease amount of outdoor exposure. It's also important to note that the problem is not specific with digital screen time, but doing anything that requires focusing on something very near to the face for a prolonged period of time without taking breaks.
It's very important to realize that myopia is a much more serious issue than just needing eyeglasses or contact lenses. Myopia (especially high myopia) is associated with vision loss due to glaucoma, retinal detachment, and maculopathy (degeneration of the macula). And remember, the earlier the onset of myopia (before the age of 8), the more severe the outcomes.
So you may ask, with school closures still a reality in many regions of the world as the pandemic rages on, what can parents do to avoid their children developing myopia at these young ages?
- Children should give their eyes a break from books and digital devices.
- Make sure children relax their eyes and focusing by looking at least 20 feet away (e.g., outside a window).
- It's recommended that children spend at least 2 hours outside every day, as time outside has increasingly been recognized as a factor in whether or not children develop myopia.