Myopia and children: A closer look at what parents need to know
By Dr. Ryan Parker, Director of Professional Education, Essilor of America
The next time you’re with your children, closely observe their behavior and then answer the following questions. Do they frequently squint to see distant objects or complain about headaches? Or maybe they regularly hold their favorite books and digital devices a bit too close to their face?
If the answer to any of these is yes, they may have an increasingly common vision issue called myopia, or nearsightedness. Because of an elongated eye shape, they are having difficulty seeing things far away. Fortunately, there are several things parents can do if their kids have myopia, especially if it is discovered at an early age.
While myopia has existed for as long as there have been people, it has become a rapidly growing vision issue in recent years, affecting 42 percent of Americans between the ages of 12-54, up from 25 percent just 40 years ago. We don’t know exactly what causes myopia.
If left undiagnosed and untreated, myopia may lead to serious vision problems including retinal detachment, early cataract development, macular degeneration and glaucoma.
When I worked as a practicing optometrist, I helped parents and children who were struggling with myopia. I continue to see firsthand the impact myopia has on children and their parents, and it extends well beyond vision health.
If a child can’t see properly, they are more likely to struggle emotionally and intellectually if they can’t see the white board or lack the confidence because everything far away looks blurry. And parents are left wondering what to do.
The good news is that there are some easy ways to take control. It all begins with scheduling an appointment for a comprehensive eye exam with an eyecare professional as soon as possible. Even if you answered no to my questions at the beginning of this article, only an eyecare professional can provide the thorough look needed to detect myopia and other vision issues. A school vision screening or a brief examination by a pediatrician isn’t enough.
As a parent of two young children, I’m always looking out for my children’s health. Just like most parents, I take them to the pediatrician for regular medical screenings for vaccinations and to monitor their mental and physical growth and development. Twice a year, they visit the dentist for a professional mouth cleaning. Scheduling a comprehensive annual eye exam by a certified eyecare professional should be on this health care checklist.
Don’t just take my word for it. Experts say roughly 80 percent of what children learn in school is presented visually, and vision problems can have a profound effect on learning. According to the American Optometric Association (AOA), an estimated 20 percent of preschool children have vision problems. Other research shows that 24 percent of adolescents with correctable refractive errors (nearsightedness, farsightedness and/or astigmatism) don't have their vision fully corrected with up-to-date prescription eyeglasses or contact lenses.
Regular comprehensive eye exams are particularly important during childhood, when eyes are developing rapidly. The AOA recommends a first eye examination beginning at age 6 to 12 months old, at least once between age 3 to 5, and then at least annually between ages 6 to 18.
Taking this proactive approach can do wonders for children’s eye health and overall quality of life, and remains the best way to manage myopia. When I was still running my eyecare practice, there were many instances where a 15-year-old had failed their driver’s license test due to poor vision and I was seeing them in my office for the first time. Just imagine how different their childhood could have been if they had enjoyed clear vision.
Nearsightedness can be managed with glasses, contact lenses or refractive surgery, but as of now there is no way to correct the underlying cause, which is an elongated eye shape. That is why another powerful way to manage myopia is by managing “screen time.”
Many parents struggle with the popularity of digital devices. From mobile phones to tablets to laptops and big screen TVs, children spend more time staring at screens than ever before. Because all of that close-up eye strain could worsen myopia, it’s important to strike a better balance between screen time and outdoor time.
I use the “20-20” rule with my kids: For every 20 minutes of time on an electronic device, I have them take a 20 second break and focus their eyes on something at least 20 feet away. It’s a simple and effective way to potentially help manage myopia progression. The fact is that myopia cannot be cured. As you can see, diagnosing and managing myopia starting at an early age can certainly help.
At Essilor, we believe everyone deserves to have healthy vision and access to eye care. The unprecedented growth of myopia here in the US needs to be addressed. For more information about myopia, check out this trailer, which shows how myopia affects a child’s life or visit our website. And remember to schedule an appointment with an eyecare professional for a comprehensive eye exam to learn more.
 Vitale S, Sperduto RD. (2009, Dec). Increased prevalence of myopia in the United States between 1971-1972 and 1999-2004. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20008719
[2) Murphy R (2017, Apr). Learning-Related Vision Problems. Retrieved from https://www.allaboutvision.com/parents/learning.htm
[3} (2014, Oct). Racial disparities in uncorrected and under corrected refractive error in the United States. Ophthalmology & Visual Science. Retrieved from https://www.preventblindness.org/sites/default/files/national/documents/Children's_Vision_Chartbook.pdf