Lori Anderson: Clear vision needed on eyesight

Using tablets and other 'near-work' gadgets may be contributing to myopia. Picture: Getty
Using tablets and other 'near-work' gadgets may be contributing to myopia. Picture: Getty
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It WAS in third year that I went rogue. I turned from the ideal daughter who came home punctually from school each day to a routine of a snack, then homework followed by family dinner to one who would arrive tardily at the dinner table just by the seat of her grey flannel skirt. Dilly dallying? Smoking behind the bike sheds? Hanging out with the bad boys? No, none of the above, it was myopia.

With three bus numbers calling at my stop, only one of which would take me home, each day was a lottery as to how I would step on to the right bus. My best hope was that there would be a good crowd at the bus stop, which considerably raised the percentage chance that someone was waiting for the No 38 and going my way.

In the early days, I flagged all the buses down but quickly wearied of the mouthful of invective from the driver as I said: “Oh sorry, actually this isn’t my bus.” If there was no-one to put out their hand to stop the bus, it would whizz by – the blurred number only coming into focus just as it belched past.

I eventually broke down and confessed all and so I was whisked off to the optician, diagnosed with Magoo-like eyesight and presented with a pair of Dior pearl-grey glasses. I still thought they reeked of NHS specs, so decided to jazz them up by painting them with YSL’s fuchsia pink nail varnish – in the course rendering myself a dead ringer for Timmy Mallett. So they remained unworn, tucked into my blazer pocket only to be frantically whipped out every time a bus approached.

When I was at school, wearing glasses was as uncommon as it was uncool. No-one wanted to be a “speccy-four eyes”, the victim of a popular playground taunt. In the future, that particular taunt may be rendered obsolete if glasses become the new norm, which, according to studies, appears to be the direction in which we are heading, or perhaps that should be stumbling shortsightedly.

Over the past 15 years, there has been a large increase in shortsightedness, or myopia as it is known, according to the Myopia Institute in the United States. A quarter of the world’s population is now shortsighted, a figure that is expected to increase to one-third by 2020.

While a small percentage of people have always suffered from myopia, what opticians are noticing is an unprecedented rise in the condition among children and young adults. A study by the National Institute of Health in 2009 found that myopia in the US had risen by 66 per cent. When data from 1971-72 was compared to the period between 1999 and 2004, researchers discovered that myopia was up from 25 per cent to 41 per cent. But what was most interesting was that the highest increase was among those aged between 20 and 39, where severe myopia was recorded at rates twice as high as among the elderly.

What is causing this new generation of Mr Magoos is a matter of debate. It had previously been believed that myopia was genetic, but this is no longer considered to be a major factor. The cause is largely environmental, with some claiming that even diet is an influence. Another factor is the increasing hours children and young people spend in what in “near work”; poring over books, computer screens, iPads and smartphones. Our eyeballs adapt and develop as we grow and using handheld devices uses complex motor skills that older eyes are more accustomed to handling. Maria Liu, head of the Myopia Control Clinic, explains that children who spend a lot of time in “near work” can find that, as they age, their eyes accept nearsightedness as normal, as if it has become their default setting.

Handheld devices also require a shorter working distance for the eyes than either reading a book or watching television and, according to a study by the University of California at Berkeley, young people using handheld devices are more likely to see their eyesight adversely affected.

Japan last month became the first country to grasp the nettle when the education department in the city of Kariya banned primary and early secondary pupils from using smartphones and tablet computers after 9pm to reduce eye strain.

A second factor said to be contributing to the rise in myopia is that young people are spending too much time indoors and not enough in direct sunlight. Kathryn Rose, a researcher in visual disorders at the University of Sydney, argues that there is a link between how long a person spends outdoors and whether they develop myopia. She believes that the tipping point where natural daylight can act as a prophylactic against myopia is between ten and 14 hours per week. The exact reason for this is not known but shortsightedness is less common in poorer, agricultural regions.

I find it disturbing that mankind is losing its vision. Images once pin sharp are now being rendered into a bleary smear of light and form. Glasses may be on hand to provide an artificial corrective, but it is disturbing to see something as precious as sight slide into decline unchecked. If myopia can be stalled, then that is a bus we don’t want to miss.