New Zealand parents urged to adopt 'no sunnies, no play' rule for children amid eye health concerns

As a kid who spent her formative years in the suburbs of south London, sunglasses were never a major concern when I was playing in the local park. Beaches are far from a Londoner's natural habitat - unless you want to drive a few hours to sit on stones and complain about the weather. 

However, for children fortunate enough to grow up among the surf, sand and sun of Aotearoa, sunglasses are crucial - yet according to new research, less than half of Kiwi kids are sporting the specs despite the risks associated with the eyes and UV exposure.

Although summer is coming to an end, optometrists are continuing to urge parents to adopt a 'no sunnies, no play' rule with their children - whether they're in the car, at the beach or on their bikes, or even outdoors in autumnal weather. 

According to research commissioned by Specsavers, four in 10 parents don't realise that children's eyes are more at risk from UV exposure than an adult's eyes - and while 90 percent of Kiwi kids aged under 16 own a pair of sunglasses, less than half (39 percent) are regularly wearing them.

The research also shows that three in five Kiwi kids (61 percent) under the age of 16 are not always wearing sunglasses outside during the day in summer. Meanwhile, one in five (17 percent) may not be fully protecting their eyes, with their parents admitting their child's frames don't have full UV protection, or they're unsure.

Out of the surveyed parents, three in 10 (28 percent) believed a hat provides enough protection against the sun.

Optometrist Karthi Param is now urging parents and caregivers to adopt a 'no sunnies, no play' rule when children partake in outdoor activities.

Children's eyes can absorb more UV radiation as their pupils are larger and the lens of their eyes is clearer. Ultraviolet is a form of electromagnetic radiation which is present in sunlight and constitutes about 10 percent of the total electromagnetic radiation output from the sun.

However, studies have shown that wearing sunglasses with a wide-brimmed hat can reduce UV exposure by as much as 98 percent.

Param believes that establishing sun-smart practices with children in their younger years will encourage them to take care of their eyes in later life.

"New Zealand has one of the highest levels of UV in the world, so it's critical to encourage children to be sun-safe and instil good behaviours when they're younger so they set themselves up for life," Param said. 

"Long-term exposure to UV can lead to sight-threatening conditions such as macular degeneration, or even cancer."

According to parents with children under the age of 10, the main barriers stopping their kids from wearing sunglasses consistently are forgetfulness (34 percent); children finding them uncomfortable (32 percent); and kids always taking them off (31 percent). For older kids aged between 10 and 16, forgetfulness is the main barrier, with 37 percent of participants saying their children always forget to put their shades on.

"As a parent myself, I understand how difficult it can be to get kids to wear and keep wearing their sunglasses, so having a simple 'no sunnies, no play' rule, just like with seatbelts and driving, helps kids to know they can't go outside and play without their sunglasses," Param said. "Getting them into the habit of grabbing their sunnies whenever they leave the house is really important."

This does not mean relegating the sunnies to only high exposure environments like the beach, but also donning them during more incidental times - like in the car and walking to school.

While the summer months are a great time to remind parents and children of the importance of sunglasses, UV is present year-round, Param wanted - and not just on clear, sunny days.

"We all need to be aware of UV, even when we're only spending a short amount of time outside.

Making sure you're protecting your whole body including your eyes and being sun safe particularly from October to March is essential," Param said.

"Always practice sun-safe habits. The most important thing is to slip, slop, slap, seek and wrap. When you're outside, slip on sun-protective clothing, slop on sunscreen with SPF30 or higher, slap on a hat, seek shade and wrap on sunglasses that provide UV protection."

The best way to instil healthy eye habits for life is to ensure kids get a comprehensive eye test every two years.
The best way to instil healthy eye habits for life is to ensure kids get a comprehensive eye test every two years. Photo credit: Supplied

An optometrist's top tips for protecting your child's eyes from the sun

  • Start them early: there's no set age sunglasses are recommended for kids, so it comes down to your child feeling comfortable in their pair. Start them young so as they grow up, they form good habits for life.
  • Fit comes first: wrap-around style sunglasses are usually more comfortable for kids, particularly active ones. This style also offers better protection as they wrap around the face and cover the sides of the eyes.
  • Check the tags: make sure the sunglasses you choose offer a high level of UVA and UVB protection. Plus, for superior vision in bright light, opt for polarisation. Avoid novelty glasses as these are often just coloured lenses and don't have the right protection.
  • Wrap on sunnies all year round: check the UV report as well as the weather report and remember that even on cloudy or cooler days, the UV level can still be high.
  • Get their eyes tested regularly: the best way to instil healthy eye habits for life is to ensure kids get a comprehensive eye test every two years.