Myopia: Optometrist warns NZ parents to make eye tests a priority amid rising cases of youth shortsightedness

A woman or girl having an eye exam at an ophthalmologist's office. - stock photo
Here's what you need to know about myopia. Photo credit: Getty Images

"The earlier it's identified, the more we can do for it" is an optometrist's warning to New Zealand families amid a global rise in myopia, or shortsightedness, among children.

The eye condition can have a significant impact on a child's day-to-day life, says Wellington-based Specsavers optometrist David Aldridge, who is encouraging Kiwi parents and caregivers to enforce screentime restrictions as cases of myopia in children continue to rise.

The warning follows the release of new research, which found more than half of Kiwi kids aged 16 and under are spending over two hours a day on screens, contrary to the two-hour limit recommended by the Ministry of Health.

While screens may not turn their eyes square, excess screentime or digital eyestrain can contribute to vision issues such as blurry eyesight, dry eyes and irritation, as well as increasing the likelihood of developing myopia.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), myopia represents an "important public health issue in the 21st century", affecting an estimated 2.6 billion people in 2020. Based on current models, the agency estimates that by 2050, myopia will reach "epidemic proportions", affecting 52 percent of the global population. Comparatively, in 2010, myopia was estimated to affect 28 percent of the population.

"Research shows that myopia is on the rise globally, particularly amongst children. While there are a lot of contributing factors to this, one of these factors is the rise of 'near-work' and in particular, the use of screens," Aldridge told Newshub.  

"When children spend lots of time indoors or looking up close at their devices, most of what they're seeing isn't focused properly on the sides of the retina. This can cause the eye to change shape which can lead to myopia."  

In a nutshell, myopia, or shortsightedness, is an eye condition which makes distant objects appear blurry, while close-up objects appear much clearer.   

"If you're myopic, everyday tasks such as watching TV or reading street signs will likely be a challenge," Aldridge explained.

"In technical terms, myopia is when the shape of certain parts of your eye affects the way light rays bend and refract in the eye. When the light rays fall short of where they should be (the retina), it leads to blurry vision."

Despite this, the research - commissioned by Specsavers - found only 27 percent of parents had taken their child for a routine eye test, which Aldridge says is one of the simplest ways to identify and correct the condition before the child experiences any detrimental symptoms.

"Other than having difficulty seeing distant objects, it can often be a tell-tale sign that your child may be short-sighted if they are experiencing headaches, eyestrain (or eye fatigue), or regularly squinting or rubbing their eyes," the expert said.   

"However, it's important to know that symptoms are not always so obvious, especially for children, which is why it's crucial that kids come in for regular eye checks so we can keep on top of it."  

Shortsighted little girl using tablet with face close to screen - stock photo
Photo credit: Getty Images

The research also indicated that not all New Zealand parents are aware of the potential impacts of excess screentime. Ninety percent of parents said they would restrict their child's screentime if they knew it was detrimental to their eyesight, while 80 percent reported being at least "somewhat concerned" about screentime negatively impacting their child's vision. Over two thirds of parents said they had taken their child in for an eye test when prompted by symptoms.  

Aldridge says around three or four is a good age for a first eye test, or sooner if parents or caregivers are concerned about any possible issues.

"Don't wait until your child has trouble focusing, blurred vision or headaches - be proactive in seeing your optometrists. What many people don't realise is that early intervention is key, especially when amblyopia, commonly known as a lazy eye, is present. We need the opportunity to see them well before this to give the child the best chance for their vision to develop correctly," Aldridge told Newshub.  

"There is no miracle cure per se, however the earlier it's identified, the more we can do for it. Identifying and treating myopia early on is crucial. To treat myopia, we tend to prescribe glasses and contact lenses to help them see better and reduce the ongoing eyestrain."  

Myopia doesn't just mean your child is shortsighted, the optometrist added - the condition can significantly impact their day-to-day life or potentially lead to other issues. Good vision is key for a child's educational, physical and social development; undiagnosed shortsightedness could lead to frequent headaches, worrying about headaches, trouble focusing, and not being able to see the whiteboard or projector during lessons - all of which can play a "massive role in how our kids learn, focus and interact with the world", Aldridge said.

Additionally, a myopic individual may be at greater risk of developing some eye conditions later in life, such as retinal problems.

What can be done to reduce digital eyestrain or prevent myopia?  

As well as restricting screentime, Aldridge says getting outside is very important for preventing myopia; ideally, children should be outdoors for a minimum of an hour-and-a-half to two hours per day, he said.

"We encourage parents to take kids outside for a snack, tell them to read their books outside, or take their toys outside. This is essential because sunlight can control and maintain eye growth and help prevent myopia," Aldridge told Newshub.   

"Some other tips, such as remembering to blink, drinking lots of water and looking at distant objects every 20 minutes or so, can go a long way in improving eye health. And of course, take your kids in for regular eye tests."  

Blinking regularly keeps the surface of the eyes moist, he explained, while general hydration is key for preventing dry eyes.

Additionally, the 20-20-20 rule means looking at an object at least 20 metres away for at least 20 seconds, every 20 minutes; the easiest way to do this is to take small breaks and look at a faraway object through the window to give tired eyes a break from the screen, Aldridge explained.

Several optometrists throughout New Zealand offer free or discounted eye tests for children and young people. At the time of writing, Specsavers offers free eye tests for all children aged 15 and under; Oscar Wylee offers free eye tests for school-aged kids under 18; and OPSM offers an eye test and Digital Retinal Scan for kids aged 16 and under for $45, or free with a glasses purchase.