Our children staring at screens for far too long

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2011, 12:00am

Eyesight is a gift that cannot be taken for granted. Losing some or all means a decline in quality of life and a struggle to adapt. It is a mystery, then, why so many parents allow and even encourage their children to abuse what is perhaps their most important sense by letting them sit for hours in front of computer and television screens.

They should, instead, be advocating a balance, ensuring that some time is spent on outdoor activities.

Medical research unequivocally points to increased use of screen-based devices as being behind a global increase in visual problems. Many people who spend prolonged time using computers or playing video games develop myopia, a permanent condition in which distance sight is blurred and near vision clear. It is especially prevalent in Hong Kong, where children are pressured to do extra school work to get higher marks. That was borne out by an online study by Chinese University and the Project Vision Charitable Foundation, which found 43.1 per cent of 1,965 primary students had the affliction, a 7 per cent increase from a decade ago. There was a rise in the percentage with high myopia, from 1.3 to 2.1.

The children spent an average of 31/2 hours a day using computers, watching television and reading. Only 50 minutes was spent outdoors - presumably getting to and from school, tutorials and music lessons. That is appallingly little, especially as health of body and mind is so dependent on a mix of activities. When it comes to sight, we need to look far as well as near.

People who stare at screens for too long complain of headaches, tired, sore or dry eyes, squinting and excessive blinking. Those are signs that it is time to relax strained eye muscles by refocusing on distant objects; these are also the symptoms of myopia. Glasses or contact lenses can fix the problem and while the condition is not unusual or detrimental to health, it can affect ability to function in the everyday world. If we want the best for our children, we should be ensuring they spend less time looking at screens and more at mountains and trees.