Too much time spent indoors is also being linked to a spike in Canadian children’s diminishing ocular health.
Dr. Debbie Jones is a clinical professor of optometry at the University of Waterloo and a scientist at the Centre for Ocular Research & Education.
Her team found that children who spend less time outside are much more likely to have myopia or nearsightedness, which often gets worse with age.
It’s an issue that’s on the rise.
“We know from other markets in the world that myopia has been increasing dramatically and it has been predicted that by 2050 about half of the world’s population, or about five billion people, will be myopic or near-sighted,” Jones said.
Nearsightedness is defined as having clear vision up close and blurry vision from afar.
Jones’ research team carried out a study within the community of Waterloo between 2017 and 2018 split between two age groups, six to eight-years-old and 11 to 13, years old.
Overall 168 children took part and approximately 20 per cent of those children had myopia or were nearsighted.
In the younger age group, it was around six per cent, and the older age group it was almost 30 per cent, Jones said.
“(The rate of myopia) is an increase compared to statistics we’ve found in the past, and really the impact is that once myopia starts at a younger age, it continues to progress right through the late teens and early 20’s,” she said.
“So if you’re starting at age six or eight with myopia, the likelihood is that you’re going to have a higher prescription by the time it stops progressing.”
The concern there? Higher prescriptions can sometimes lead to complications like retinal detachment or retinal degradation later in life, which can be devastating to a person’s vision.
“One of the biggest surprises (of the study) was actually that about one-third of the children that we discovered to be myopic had no idea that they were,” she said.
“So they hadn’t had an eye examination and had no idea they weren’t seeing well. It really brought home that parents are not taking their children for routine eye care.”
The study included questionnaires, which were filled out by the subjects, to find out much time they were spending inside and how much time was spent outside.
“What we found was that children who spent even an extra hour outside per week, were about 14 times less likely to be myopic than children who didn’t,” she said.
Yes, 14 times less likely to have myopia, not 14 per cent.
“You don’t have to be outside very much to have a real positive impact on visual health,” she added.
Although the questionnaire didn’t get into the weeds about what activities the children were doing while inside, it referred to simply as ‘near-work’ activities, or anything that required looking closely at an object; books, tablets, phones, video games, etc.
“We can’t correlate it specifically to screens, but time spent looking at things up close, and of course children now are more likely to be staring at a tablet or cell phone, rather than having their head in a book,” she said.
Jones said in future research she’d like to see future studies delve more deeply into this topic, with a wider range of subjects across the country with more diverse ethnic groups and delving into what type of activities are happening in the home.
The team is also researching ways of slowing down the progression of myopia.
But the main takeaway for Jones was the importance of outdoors time for young children to improve eye health as well as regular eye exams.
More information can be found at fightmyopia.ca