As if adult eye health wasn’t complex enough. Vision problems are enormously widespread among children of just about any age, but often don’t receive the same attention as disorders in the general adult population.
It’s time to go over the numbers. Not only are many disorders already affecting a shocking number of younger people, but we’re seeing the emergence of new trends that have either enhanced our understanding of childhood eye difficulties or, alternately, might just be causing them. Here, we’ll run through a few of the more mind-blowing facts about eye health in children.
Screenings and Disorders
A recent report from the American Optometric Association found that, despite recent advances and promotion of childhood health care, an extremely large number of children are still slipping through school with undiagnosed eye problems.
The National Committee on Vision & Health states that an estimated 25 percent of all school-age children have vision disorders of some type. Another study found that 11.5 percent of teenagers have “undetected or untreated vision problems.” These issues become doubly worrying when you consider that they take place during formative years of eye development.
Even worse, many of those children are receiving no care at all. The National Committee on Vision & Health found that roughly 79 percent of the children surveyed had not visited a health care professional in the preceding year. In fact, 35 percent had never even seen an eye care professional.
School screenings provided little to no coverage for those who were missed. Only 22 percent of preschool-aged children had received a screening at the time of the report. Of those that failed it, only 40 percent received any form of follow up care, clearly leaving far, far too many disorders unnoticed and undiagnosed.
Strabismus and Amblyopia
One of the most common disorders, and potentially among the most difficult to catch, is strabismus, or crossed eyes. Children with strabismus have misaligned eyes and have difficulty developing proper binocular vision.
If left untreated, this misalignment can develop into amblyopia. This partial loss of sight in one eye occurs when the brain, struggling to coordinate information from poorly coordinated eyes, simply prioritizes input from one and largely ignores the other. The subordinate eye accordingly never develops fully and can suffer from severely decreased utility.
Estimates on incidence of strabismus usually guess that it affects around two to four percent of all children. In some cases, babies are actually born with the disorder. In many others, it develops later in life, occasionally in the aftermath of an injury or health problem.
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Rising Rates of Myopia
Rates of nearsightedness, or myopia, have been on a steady global incline for years. In some Asian countries, where the trend is most prevalent and most thoroughly studied, over 80 percent of young adults have been found to be nearsighted. This is in stark opposition to previous rates. According to a recent report in the science journal Nature, “Sixty years ago, 10 to 20 percent of the Chinese population was short-sighted. Today, up to 90 percent of teenagers and young adults are. In Seoul, a whopping 96.5 percent of 19-year-old men are short-sighted.”
Those increases have been mirrored in the US. While we haven’t reached the epidemic numbers seen in Seoul or Hong Kong, nearly half of youths in the US and Europe are nearsighted, a number double what it was a century ago.
The causes of the epidemic are still being debated, but one of the more promising explanations may come from the dwindling amount of time most children spend outside. Natural light appears to play an important role in the healthy development of vision. Given that outdoor play is in the process of being supplanted by other activities, notably the use of digital devices, it’s understandable that rates are on the rise.
Speaking of digital devices…
Excess time spent in front of a screen can have some extremely negative effects on school-aged children. Besides an apparent effect on visual development, too much screen time has been associated with increased risk of obesity, sleeping and eating disorders, and attention troubles. Besides that, the excess blue light given off by some devices may actively damage eyes.
Accordingly, screen time limits for children are low. Those younger than two are advised to have absolutely none; older children should be restricted to two hours daily. Collected numbers have shown that parents have largely been good about following those guidelines for very young children. Children under two have been found to have roughly an hour of screen time per day, with older children consuming around 2.5 hours of digital media per day.
Less encouraging though, is the fact that even the youngest children surveyed had some baseline experience with digital media. Seventy-two percent of babies under two years of age had used tablets or smartphones. While this statistic is largely just indicative of increased digital device usage across all ages, it’s a worrying sign that screen time may become the norm for future generations.
And once children become teenagers, numbers suddenly skyrocket. It is estimated that teenagers spend an average of six hours a day in front of a screen.
From screenings to screens, there’s plenty of cause to be cautious when discussing the future visual health of American children. In order for progress to actually occur, change will have to take place on political, scientific, and educational levels.
And on personal level as well. By far the most important people in charge of a child’s eye health are parents. If you are looking after your own little person, be aware of the risks. Ensure that your child not only receives a full eye screening, but that any problems detected at it are promptly followed up on. Restrict digital time to advised levels. And of course, stay up to date with new health news, and know the signs of visual disorders. When it comes to your child’s eyes, you’re the first line of defense.