As the 2020 school year kicks off, kids eye health tends not to be on parents’ radars unless an obvious impairment presents itself. In fact, one in three Australian children under 17 have never had an optometrist test their eyes.1
With the incidence of myopia (short-sightedness) now reaching ‘epidemic’ proportions across the globe, regular eye exams should be on the back to school must-list for every parent.
It has been estimated that by this year, more than two billion people worldwide will be affected myopia. By 2050, it is estimated that more than 50% of the world’s population will have myopia. In Australia, 55% are predicted to be myopic by 2050.2
The statistics are alarming, not only because near-sightedness creates short term troubles like straining, headaches, difficulty reading and learning in a classroom setting – and consequently even behavioural changes - but because myopia is irreversible and increases the likelihood of vision impairments later in life. Alarmingly, the Australia New Zealand Child Myopia Report found that almost half (49%) of Australian parents with children aged 17 years and under admit they do not know what causes myopia.3
It is now well established that prolonged near tasks such as reading or gaming on portable devices can increase myopia prevalence and progression. Other major risk factors include lack of time outdoors and insufficient exposure to natural light – which typically go hand in hand with too much screen time. The more time a child spends indoors staring at a screen, the less time they play in the fresh air where their eyes are more challenged at various directions and distances. In Asia, where indoor study often takes precedence over play, myopia rates are off the charts.
Keeping a watchful eye over children's visual progress is important for picking up on problems like myopia, among other conditions. If you notice any signs of squinting, twitching or greying of the pupil, consult an optometrist immediately. The same applies if eye diseases or poor sight runs in the family. Another warning sign is if babies do not try to establish eye contact with someone talking to them. However, this can be hard to detect. The lenses of infants' eyes are still very soft and can compensate for vision problems very effectively, i.e. they can adapt to various distances without difficulty. If one eye is not performing as well as the other, parents sometimes do not notice that the 'good' eye is in fact compensating for the 'bad' one. It is therefore advisable to have your child's eyes tested at an early age – ideally at age three.
A visit to the optometrist is an absolute must before a child starts school, and after that every other year, or earlier if you notice any changes. An eye examination at the age of 14 is essential in order to detect any changes in adolescent eyes, especially myopia as teens are the most likely to be spending more time on social media, gaming and using computers generally. The next examination should then be conducted when a young adult is applying for his or her first driver’s licence.