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In-Depth: Pandemic lockdowns linked to worsening eyesight in kids

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By: Derek Staahl
Posted at 5:56 PM, Sep 24, 2021  and last updated 6:39 PM, Sep 24, 2021

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- New research reveals another concerning consequence linked to pandemic lockdowns and school closures: worsening eyesight among children.

Three recent studies found the rate of nearsightedness accelerated in China after lengthy lockdowns. People with the condition, known clinically as myopia, have trouble seeing at a distance.

Researchers blamed the sudden spike on children spending more time indoors, staring at digital screens during the pandemic.

One study, published in Frontiers in Public Health, examined Chinese students from elementary school through high school. It found the overall rate of myopia among children increased from 44 percent in 2019 to 55 percent in 2020.

The surge was most dramatic among younger children. A study published this month in JAMA Ophthalmology found the rate of myopia among 7 and 8 year-olds in China doubled during the pandemic compared to the rate from 2018 to 2019.

Those findings were in line with a January study on similarly aged children. It compared the rate of myopia in 2020 to the previous five years and found the prevalence after months of home confinement was 1.4 to 3 times higher.

“It’s very troubling,” said UC San Diego pediatric ophthalmology professor Dr. Shira Robbins.

Myopia rates have been mysteriously increasing for decades, but the pace accelerated like a sports car during the pandemic, said Robbins, who oversees the UCSD Myopia Control Clinic at the Shiley Eye Institute.

When children spend more time indoors focused on digital screens up close, it limits their field of vision. Over time, that can contribute to changes in the eye’s structure as a child grows, Dr. Robbins said.

Myopia occurs when the normally round eye grows misshapen. The back of the eye elongates into somewhat of an egg shape, causing blurry vision because light can no longer reach receptors properly. Children in elementary school are at the biggest risk for myopia because their eyes grow the most, Robbins said.

“The eye is not designed to be looking at just one distance. It’s designed to look at all distances. And when you just look at one distance, it’s not healthy for the eye,” she said.

Robbins’ team is studying local cases of myopia. She said it is hard to assess the current prevalence in San Diego, but she suspects there has been a less dramatic increase than the one seen in China.

China had a strict home confinement policy from January 2020 through June 2020.

“In China, they had not just businesses and schools shut down. They had laws that kept people in their homes for very long periods of time. And a lot of the typical homes are small apartments. So you had children who couldn’t look beyond the four walls of an apartment for months on end,” she said.

Parents should make sure their children are getting regular eye checks and plenty of time outside, she said.

When nearsightedness develops, the vision changes tend to be permanent, but Dr. Robbins and the Myopia Control Clinic are experimenting with treatments to slow the progression in children and young adults. Without treatment, high myopia increases the risk of serious diseases like retinal detachment and glaucoma later in life.

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