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Put eye exams back on to-do list: Ophthalmologists see more vision problems in kids after increased screen time

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WATCH ABOVE: Parents are being urged to add an eye exam to their to-do list. As Kendra Slugoski discovered in today's Family Matters, after increased screen time last school year, doctors are seeing more eye strain and nearsightedness – Oct 12, 2021

Olivia Mar is happy to be back in a classroom learning in person.

The Grade 5 student said being pushed online last school year was difficult — but this year, there’s a new challenge making it hard for her to focus.

“My vision has been getting worse but I haven’t started to wear glasses yet,” said Mar.

“I will lose focus and my vision gets sort of blurry.”

Mar’s father, John Mar, said his other children didn’t start experiencing vision problems until they were in junior high and high school.

“Olivia sort of self-diagnosed herself and recognized that she was having a little bit of problems at school seeing the board,” said her father.

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“There was a little bit of difficulty just because of COVID and the impact of that you have trying to get scheduled.”

Calgary, Alta., ophthalmologist Dr. Vivian Hill said routine eye exams have been impacted by COVID-19. Office closures early on in the pandemic created a backlog of appointments.

Hill is urging parents to “put eye exams back on their to-do lists.”

She said ophthalmologists across the country believe increased screen time has led to more vision problems.

“We’ve noticed an increase in the amount of myopia — so nearsightedness.”

Read more: Increased screen time leading to increased eye issues in kids: optometrists

Hill, who is also chair of Council on Advisory for the Canadian Ophthalmological Society, said some international studies point to a 300 per cent increase in myopia cases since lockdowns and online schooling.

She stressed if not treated promptly or correctly, myopia can get worse.

There are other potential consequences of a missed diagnosis in young children.

“Not wearing glasses in children can create a condition called amblyopia,” said Hill, “which can have life-long impacts.”

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Amblyopia, also called lazy eye, causes weak vision or vision loss in one eye.

Without early detection, children could miss out on early eye patching or other corrective measures. If detected early, it will often be corrected. Untreated, amblyopia can lead to blindness.

So, at what age should children be seeing an ophthalmologist or optometrist?

Hill recommends as young as three or four.

Read more: Eye exams: when to start getting them and a special offer in Alberta

“Children can have very poor vision in one eye and be completely functioning normally.

“That’s why that initial exam to pick something up is extremely important.”

She encouraged parents to book another exam once the child enters the school system, to help diagnose any other issues.

The pandemic has created another eyesight issue in children.

For many, who already wear glasses, Hill said masking has been difficult.

It’s resulted in some children taking off their glasses and going without.

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“Glasses in children are very different from glasses in adults,” Hill said, “in that they’re absolutely critical for the normal development of vision in children. So kids need to wear their glasses but they also need to wear their masks.”

She said a tight-fitting top part of the mask, around the bridge of the nose, should reduce the amount of air that blows up around the eyes.

Another indication of increased eye strain among both children and adults is dry eye, which Hill said can develop with prolonged screen time and not blinking enough.

Ophthalmologists point to the 20-20-20 rule.

“We recommend for every 20 minutes of screen time you take a 20 second break looking 20 seconds away.”

Now that children are more than a month back in to the school year, parents are being asked to watch for indicators of eyesight problems.

Squinting, light sensitivity and a wandering eye are symptoms of eye strain and a child should see a specialist right away.

Seethepossibilities.ca may also help answer parent questions on everything from eye injury to the risk of developing eye diseases.

Olivia Mar’s appointment narrowed her issue to myopia — glasses and eye drops were prescribed to treat the progression.

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As parents juggle work, back to school and activities, Hill is again reminding parents not to forget about eye exams.

“I think it’s just also important that we don’t remove eye exams from our list of things to do. As you stop doing them one year maybe you forget the second year.

“Both ophthalmology and optometry will make every effort to accommodate children for their eye exams and we will get them done.”

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