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Rise in Myopia (Nearsightedness) in Children During COVID-19

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The COVID-19 pandemic had significant lifestyle and health changes across the board, and it led to an increase in myopia (nearsightedness) in children. During quarantine, children were confined to their homes and relegated to online schooling. This led to an increase in screen time and a decrease in time spent outdoors. 

Both of these things during critical eye development periods of life (young childhood) led to a rise in myopia in school-aged children. 

Prevalence of myopia continues to increase around the world, with research indicating nearly half of the global population will have myopia by the year 2050.

About the Study on COVID-19 & Myopia in Children

A large study published in JAMA Ophthalmology analyzed the prevalence of myopia in school-aged children between ages 6 and 13 from 2015 to 2020 in Feicheng, China. It found a distinct rise in cases of myopia in 2020 compared to the previous years included in the study. 

In children between ages 6 and 8 particularly, a shift in myopia of approximately -0.3 diopters was found in the 2020 screening compared to the 2015–2019 screenings. 

The changes ranged from 1.4 times higher for 7-year-old kids to 2 times higher for 7-year-olds and 3 times higher for 6-year-olds. In this study, rates of myopia spiked from 5.7 percent to 21.5 percent in 6-year-old children, from 16.2 percent to 26.2 percent in 7-year-old children, and from 27.7 percent to 37.2 percent in 8-year-old children.

Myopia makes it more difficult to see things that are far away, and it is often attributed to extra growth in the axial length of the eye. This type of development is likely critical during the age window between 6 and 8 years old, which can be a prime time for the development of myopia. 

Myopia can be influenced by both environmental and genetic factors. The COVID-19 pandemic brought about drastic environmental changes for these schoolchildren due to quarantine and online schooling.

Rise in Myopia

Several additional studies around the world have shown similar rises in myopia in children after the COVID-19 pandemic:

The prevalence of myopia in children rose dramatically across the globe in school children as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the coronavirus itself did not necessarily impact eyesight, the environmental and lifestyle changes that occurred during key eye development periods played a big role.

Causes of Myopia

Increases in myopia during the pandemic is likely related to lifestyle changes and environmental factors. Studies indicate that the following played a role in the rise of myopia in children during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Increased screen time, particularly handheld screens, such as tablets and smartphones
  • Strict home quarantine and digital/virtual schooling
  • Less time spent outdoors

School-aged children, particularly younger children, are especially vulnerable to these environmental factors and lifestyle changes while their eyes are still developing. Spending too much time looking at screens and less time playing outside increases rates of myopia and eye issues.

Symptoms of Myopia

With myopia, things up close usually appear clear, but you have trouble seeing things clearly that are further away. Symptoms of myopia can include the following:

  • Blurry vision
  • Difficulty seeing the whiteboard or front of the classroom
  • Eye strain
  • Headaches
  • Squinting to try and see properly
  • Eye rubbing
  • Eye watering
  • Closing one eye to try and see better
  • Holding objects closer to see them more clearly
  • Sitting closer to the TV 

Children often will not complain about blurry vision or difficulties seeing, so it is crucial to watch for some of the other telltale signs of myopia.

How to Prevent Myopia in Children

Fortunately, there are several things parents can do to help prevent and minimize the progression of myopia in children. One of the most important things you can do is to ensure that you are scheduling regular eye exams. 

Children should have their first eye exam around 6 months old, a follow-up exam at 3, and another prior to starting school. School-age children need a routine eye exam every year and potentially more often if corrective lenses are necessary.

Here are some additional tips to lower overall risk for myopia and promote overall eye health:

  • Limit screen time as much as possible. If online schooling is necessary, ensure that the child is taking regular breaks and keep recreational screen time to a minimum.
  • Prioritize time spent outdoors. Children need at least 90 minutes of time outside every day in the sunlight when possible.
  • Use the 20-20-20 rule outlined by the American Optometric Association. For every 20 minutes of screentime, spend at least 20 seconds looking at something at least 20 feet away to minimize eye strain.
  • Ensure that your child gets enough sleep. Children need about 10 to 13 hours of sleep every night to promote healthy eyes, brains, and bodies. Teens need at least 8 to 10 hours of sleep.

While you can’t fully prevent the development of myopia, taking these steps can help to reduce some risk and support vision development.

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