Staring Down the ‘Silent Epidemic’ of Myopia in Children

Myopia, commonly known as short-sightedness, is rapidly becoming a global health concern. Once believed to be solely genetic, recent studies highlight increased indoor time as a significant contributor, particularly among children whose eyes are still developing.

Shanti Mathias, in an article for The Spinoff, Staring Down the ‘Silent Epidemic’ of Myopia in Children, discusses the alarming rise in myopia and the need for preventative measures to protect children’s vision. Winning a 2024 Science Journalism Award for excellent reporting on science-related topics, this is what this article tells us about the silent epidemic of myopia.

The rise of myopia

Myopia has reached epidemic levels in East Asia. According to Mathias, 90% of urban teenagers in Korea and 65% of children in Singapore are short-sighted by the end of primary school. Chinese officials report that over 50% of children in China are myopic.

Mathias states in the article that “Trend data from meta-research in 2016, incorporating 145 studies with 2.1 million participants, estimated that by 2050, nearly 50% of the world’s population could be myopic”.

While New Zealand’s numbers aren’t as dire as those from Asia, the trend is concerning. Our optometrists at John O’Connor and our colleagues across the country are observing an increase in cases, especially after three years of pandemic-induced indoor activities.

Myopia in New Zealand: A growing concern

In New Zealand, the lack of national data on child myopia makes it challenging to track the exact increase. John Phillips, a senior lecturer in optometry and vision science at the University of Auckland, notes the need for a long-term national program to gather comprehensive data. Despite this, local optometrists, like our team at John O’Connor in Auckland, diagnose children with myopia daily. We refer to it as a “silent epidemic of myopia.”

Causes of growing myopia rates

Lifestyle changes significantly contribute to the rise in myopia. In the 1950s, myopia prevalence in many East and Southeast Asian cities was 5-10%. Today, it exceeds 80%, far beyond what genetics alone can explain. The shift from outdoor activities to indoor, close-up tasks like reading and screen use has dramatically affected eye health.

Impact of indoor lifestyles

With more New Zealanders living in urban areas and children spending enormous amounts of time on screens, there is a valid concern about rising myopia rates. Outdoor activities are crucial for eye health. They provide the natural light and distance focusing that indoor activities lack.

“While the exact mechanism is complex, rising myopia isn’t simply caused by staring into the illuminated rectangles of screens all day; it seems that something about the wavelength, amount and variability of natural light outside – the conditions human eyes were historically adapted to – is where our eyes function best”, Mathias explains.

The importance of catching myopia early

Early detection of myopia is vital. Eye testing can significantly impact a child’s engagement and learning. Many children who struggle to see sit at the front or disengage in class, leading to learning issues. Regular eye exams help identify vision problems early, preventing long-term educational setbacks.

Long-term implications

While glasses can correct how kids see the world, myopia can still lead to severe eye health issues later in life. Myopia stretches the internal tissues of the eyes, increasing the risk of cataracts, glaucoma, and myopic maculopathy. At John O’Connor, our optometrists can’t stress enough the importance of addressing myopia early to prevent these complications.

Preventative measures

Myopia is a growing concern worldwide, with lifestyle changes significantly contributing to its increase. Preventing myopia through increased outdoor activities and early detection is crucial. Getting children outdoors and limiting screen time can make a significant difference in preventing myopia.

Our optometrists recommend spending at least two hours a day outdoors.

They also recommend a 10-minute break from close work every hour and during the break, you should look into the distance to relax the eye muscles.

The recommended reading distance is to hold the book at elbow distance from your nose.

Another suggestion is to follow the digital screen time recommendations by the WHO: 2 hours per day during leisure time for school-age children.

Sufficient sleep for growing children is also a significant factor in maintaining healthy eyesight.

Myopia treatment options

Preventing myopia is preferable to treating it.

Free eye tests and discounted glasses are available for children, and there are further subsidies for families with Community Services Cards. However, advanced treatments like myopia control spectacles and specialised eye drops often incur additional costs. That notwithstanding, attacking myopia from all angles is an approach that our optometry team would recommend.

Check for myopia

Our optometrists at John O’Connor in Auckland also stress the importance of regular eye exams. If you are concerned about your child’s vision, contact us today to schedule an eye exam and explore the best options for maintaining healthy eyesight. Let’s work together to protect our children’s vision and prevent the silent epidemic of myopia from becoming a crisis in New Zealand.

You can reach our Newmarket Optometrists at 09 522 1283 or our Henderson Optometrists at 09 836 1731. Alternatively, you can send us an email via our contact page.

For more information, visit the original article by Shanti Mathias on The Spinoff Staring Down the ‘Silent Epidemic’ of Myopia in Children.