Owing to Covid-19 lockdowns, less time spent outside and more hours in front of screens, there’s a growing danger that the pandemic is having a severe adverse effect on our eyesight.
The sad reality of life in a health crisis is that we inevitably spend more time indoors, living, learning and working from home and staring at our mobile phones, televisions and tablets. When we spend more time indoors, our eyes are constantly focused on close range objects inside, and we lack the benefits of looking into the distance.
As the rollout of vaccines help to combat the pandemic, it’s become clear that the working lives of many of us have changed for good. In fact, the data above shows that almost two-thirds of workers who engaged in remote work want to remain working from home – and 58% of respondents would rather look for a new job than return to the office.
However, evidence suggests that this increased amount of time indoors is harming our eyesight. Children who have spent much of their time learning from home in the pandemic appear to have been especially affected by myopia – but the threat may become more pertinent for adults who remain working from home following the pandemic.
What is Myopia?
Myopia is a common eyesight disorder that affects around 2.5 billion people around the world. The World Health Organisation forecasts that half of the world’s population may be myopic by 2050, with 10% of individuals classified as ‘highly myopic.’ The dangers of high myopia are significant, and it can cause sight-threatening diseases like maculopathy, posterior staphyloma, choroidal neovascularisation, retinal atrophy, retinal detachment and optic neuropathy.
Furthermore, it’s estimated that 75% of adults today need vision correction, but only 11% wear contact lenses and 64% wear glasses – meaning that the continuation of working from home and near-sighted exposure to screens may exacerbate more pre-existing conditions.
There are many authors who recognise myopia as an epidemic, particularly in Asiatic regions where its prevalence is around 80% among individuals over 15 years old – indicating that risks associated with myopia grow alongside environmental and cultural exposure like intensive education programmes, prolonged near work and less time outdoors.
As Covid-19 emerged, lockdown measures were put in place on a global scale. This containment meant that many children, teenagers and adults have spent their time entertaining themselves at home – whether this entertainment amounts to reading books, watching television or playing video games. They’ve also had to communicate, learn and work using computers, tablets and smartphones.
This reliance on electronic devices can significantly increase the screen time that we’re exposed to during the pandemic and set a precedent for life after Covid. This heavy increase in near sighted work without respite could result in a greater risk of myopia for many on a global scale.
The Impact of Working From Home on Our Eyesight
The joy of abandoning the hustle and bustle of office life and ditching claustrophobic commutes on public transport has motivated many workers to stay working from home even after the pandemic. The financial appeal for employers who no longer have to spend as much on office space and in-house supplies and software is clear too. However, the implications of the WFH life on our bodies is beginning to show that remote work may not be the relaxing process that it’s been cracked up to be.
Working from home has been linked to musculoskeletal issues leading to problems like back pain due to a lack of appropriate working conditions. As we slump and lounge our way through our working days, we risk causing gradual and sustained damage that wouldn’t occur if we were sat in a supportive chair at an office desk.
However, Dr Parul Sharma, director at Max Eye Care, Max Hospitals notes that, while musculoskeletal complaints related to posture are important to listen to, it’s also vital to avoid risking other more discreet effects associated with working from home. “Your posture, ambient lighting in the room, brightness of your screen — everything contributes to the added strain on your eyes,” Sharma said.
Without keeping an appropriate distance between your eyes and the screens you’re looking at, you could cause significant damage to your eyes at home where there’s less of a formal office structure in place to help your posture.
How Myopia is Affecting Children in the Pandemic
Researchers believe that the Covid-19 pandemic may have increased the prevalence of myopia due to the frequency in which young children are staying indoors.
Spending more time at home focused on computer screens may have already impacted the eyesight of kids according to Xuehan Qian, MD, PhD, of Tianjin Medical University Eye Hospital in Tianjin, China.”We should be worried about the eye problems of COVID-19, not from the virus itself, but from the potential outcomes of anti-virus measures on visual health,” explained Qian.
Although the effects of myopia can be mitigated with glasses, contact lenses or through surgery, myopia can increase the risk of high myopia later in life, which carries more severe effects.
Heightened levels of digital screen use is linked to near work – a key risk factor for myopia. According to the Generation R study, which looked into a cohort of 5,074 children in Rotterdam, there was an association between increased computer use and myopia at 9 years of age.
The effects of near work, including computer use, reading time and reading distance increased the chances of children getting myopia at 9 years old. Another study of 418 students also found that smartphone data usage – which is triggered when users are likely to be viewing their screens – was independently associated with myopia.
Time spent outdoors naturally reduces myopic shift, according to clinical trials, in those with and without myopia. Furthermore, increasing outdoor time away from screens has been shown to have a positive public health impact in preventing myopia in many countries like Taiwan and Singapore.
As the data above shows, there has been a concerning rise in myopia recorded in China just one year on from the emergence of the pandemic. Most worryingly is the contrast between 2019 and 2020 rises in nearsightedness among children aged six.
Acting to Minimise the Risk of Myopia
Although the pandemic may have fundamentally changed how we spend our time and where we go to work and learn, there are many measures that can be taken to help reduce the dangers of developing myopia through excessive screen exposure and near work.
Let’s take a look at some of the key measures that can be taken in order to minimise the risk of myopia:
1. Learn the 20-20-20 Rule
The 20-20-20 rule is a great way of relaxing the muscles around your eyes. Put simply, every 20 minutes, look at something at least 20ft away (roughly six metres) for 20 seconds.
“It stops your eye muscles getting overworked,” says Daniel Hardiman-McCartney, clinical adviser to the College of Optometrists.
Learning and acting on the 20-20-20 rule has been made all the more significant in the wake of the pandemic, as workers abandon office environments to work and take breaks as and when they see fit. However the mundanities of life before the pandemic in travelling to work or school typically gave individuals the downtime they needed to relax their eyes on a subconscious level. However, these natural periods of relaxation may be gone for millions.
When we focus on a close object like a screen, small muscles inside the eyes, the ciliary muscles, contract. This contraction changes the shape of the lenses inside the eyes and helps you to focus the image on to the retina. However, it’s vital for those tiny muscles to take a break periodically.
By observing the 20-20-20 rule, you can not only give your eye muscles the vital respite they need, you can also use it as an opportunity to take a break from your tasks and refocus your mind.
2. Maintain Healthy Distance Between You and Your Screen
It’s vital that your screens remain an arm’s length from your eyes and positioned just below your natural line of sight. This is because looking downward slightly is easier on your eyes than looking up or directly at a screen. Adopting a slight downward looking approach can help to keep your eyelid closed slightly to keep the eye from drying.
In a post-Covid environment, the health and safety standards of offices are hard to replicate in a work-from-home space. However, with these general guidelines in mind, it’s possible to improvise a more ideal working environment than forcing yourself to slouch closely to a laptop on a coffee table or resting your device on your stomach whilst working.
3. Adapt Your Device Settings to Ease Your Eyes
One easy way to mitigate the level of straining your eyes are subject to is to lower your device’s brightness to a similar level to your surroundings. Many smartphones and laptops will do this automatically but it’s possible to manually change it in your settings.
It’s also possible to enlarge your text size, edit the contrast on display and change your colour temperature to reduce the levels of blue light on display so your eyes will have an easier time looking at less straining hues like orange and red.
4. Remember to Appreciate the Great Outdoors
Spending more time outside ensures that our eyes remain trained to see further – helping to mitigate the impact of myopia. This is because our eyes are constantly being used in order to see long distance objects and surroundings.
With this in mind, if you’re working from home, remember to make more plans to leave the house and walk on your breaks. Perhaps you could walk to get a coffee at lunch, or you may simply plan a wander around the block.
This practice can be especially important if you have children who are spending more time at home in the wake of the pandemic. Make plans to visit local parks or organise outdoor activities more frequently as a means of keeping their sight trained on longer distance objects.
The pandemic may have opened the door to more remote work and learning, but we’re only just becoming aware of the health risks attached to a life spent outside of the office. However, there’s hope that we can combat the risk of myopia by being proactive and less dependent on getting up close and personal with our device screens.
The risks of myopia needs to be taken seriously, and only then can we look to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic in a sustainable manner.