Screen time sending kids blind at ‘alarming rate’
SCREEN-addicted Queensland kids are going blind from excessive screen time as experts demand compulsory vision testing in schools.
Myopia, or short-sightedness, has quadrupled in children in a decade, with poor academic performance and behavioural problems among the alarming consequences.
Frustrated parents and teachers are suspecting behavioural problems, with many surprised to find their young child has sight issues.
Brisbane optometrist Zeinab Khalil said too many kids were "falling through the cracks".
"Increasing technology use, at home and in the classroom, is damaging children's eyes at an alarming rate," said Dr Khalil, of Eyedeal Optometry in Morningside, in Brisbane's east.
"We are raising a generation of kids who won't be able to see beyond their nose."
She said myopia, if untreated, could result in permanent blindness as well as retinal detachment, glaucoma and cataracts.
It was also causing learning difficulties and anti-social behaviour.
"If you can't clearly see the blackboard, you can't learn and you become frustrated, disruptive or just give up on school altogether," she said.
Dr Khalil, who also sits on the board of Optometry Queensland, wants the State Government to mandate testing in primary schools, starting with the early years.
Dr Khalil said she was treating more than four kids a week for myopia, up from just one 10 years ago.
New research reveals that 44 per cent of children under age nine, and 31 per cent under 17, have not been to an optometrist for an examination.
Moreover, nine in 10 parents are unaware of the role screen time plays in the progression of myopia, according to the Australian and New Zealand Childhood Myopia Working Group, convened by CooperVision.
While the condition can be genetic, Dr Khalil said "lifestyle factors were easily trumping hereditary factors".
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) Queensland president Dr Bruce Willett said it was possible, but unlikely kids could be misdiagnosed with behavioural issues when acting out due to sight problems.
"To be diagnosed with ADHD or ADD the behaviours need to be pervasive, they need to be happening in a number of environments," he said.
"Particularly teachers are aware of this being an issue as well … There's many reasons why kids might have behaviour deteriorating.
"People are often left scratching their head as to why school performance or behaviour has deteriorated, if this happens, think about getting an eye test."
Samantha Fox, mum of two outdoor-loving young girls, said her daughters were healthier and happier for staying off their screens.
"They love being active and playing outside, which I encourage," Ms Fox said.
"Summer is especially happy outside running and playing on the playground.
"They're so much happier outside or making arts and crafts than they would be on a screen."
Dr Glen Gole, professor of ophthalmology at the University of Queensland, said it was important to test the vision of children in prep because they were too little to understand that they might have eye problems.
"They don't know they're not seeing well, and they don't tell their parents, unlike older primary kids who can tell something's not right and articulate it," he said.
He said the sharp rise in myopia started in other countries in the 1980s and had become an epidemic in Singapore, with 90 per cent of teenagers now affected, but "hasn't hit here until the last decade".
It's not just a big city problem, with Toowoomba optometrist Sara Black noticing a three-fold increase in young children being diagnosed with myopia in the last two to three years.
"It's worse in the capital cities, but even in country areas kids are spending too much time on screens," Ms Black said.
Dr Emily Pieterse, who lectures in optometry at QUT and runs a public myopia control clinic onsite, said each successive generation of kids was "more myopic than their parents".
"It's not so much the close-up work itself, but being on computers means less time outdoors," she aid.
"Whether it's the brightness or the spectrum of natural light, or both, being outdoors signals the eye to stop lengthening so it helps protect against myopia."
Matthew Flinders Anglican College on the Sunshine Coast is among several Queensland schools encouraging digital-free time outdoors.
Treatments to slow myopia included atropine eye drops, hard contact lenses worn while sleeping to reshape the front of the eye, and special soft contact lenses. It can also be managed with glasses.
A spokesman for the Queensland Health Department said the 2018 rollout of health nurses in primary schools gave every child the opportunity to have eye tests.
'Different kid' after oversight corrected
DARCY Grosvenor hated school. He struggled to read and write and make friends and was disruptive in class.
His mother, Tessa, had all but accepted her 8-year-old wasn't "academic" and had ADHD. Then Darcy visited an optometrist and his world opened up.
"Darcy came home whingeing after a piece of paper accidentally flew into his eyeball so I took him to the optometrist, and while there was no damage, she recommended a standard vision test," said Mrs Grosvenor, 35, of Morningside. "Darcy couldn't see the letters on the chart. It was really emotional, I nearly burst into tears because I had come to the conclusion that my son was just trouble.
"When the optometrist said, 'he's basically blind', I felt so bad."
The Year 3 Cannon Hill State School student now wears glasses in class, and his confidence has soared.
"Darcy is a different kid," Mrs Grosvenor said. "He was frustrated before (the myopia diagnosis) and because he didn't have any idea what was going on in class he had no rapport with other kids who did; it affected his ability to make friends. I hate to think of all the kids wrongly diagnosed with ADHD and put on medication for issues caused by their eyesight."
Mrs Grosvenor, whose husband has myopia, acknowledged computer use had exacerbated her son's condition.
"Schools are using computers a lot, and when kids are home they've got all kinds of technology we didn't have," she said.
Mrs Grosvenor, who runs Ringside Boxing Gym, said she was looking forward to Darcy's end-of-year report card because his optometrist had guaranteed "a big improvement".