With the advent of computers, smartphones, Facebook, outdoor fun and games often take second place in the minds of our children. In some cultures, academic success places intense pressure on kids to read and study.

A report last year from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showed that the average 15-year-old in Shanghai now spends 14 hours per week on homework, compared with five hours in the United Kingdom and six hours in the United States.

There is a worldwide epidemic of childhood nearsightedness (myopia). In Asia, upwards of 90 percent of young adults need glasses for myopia. In the 1950s, the incidence was 30 percent.  In the U.S. and U.K., myopia rates have doubled in the last 50 years.

For most people, needing glasses or contact lenses is a nuisance. However, a small percentage of children will develop extreme myopia, leading to serious eye problems as adults.

Other factors including genetics come into play. The culprit appears to be lack of sunlight exposure. Previously, researchers noted that smarter kids were more likely to be myopic than kids who did less well in school. Thus, the conclusion that reading and studying were the cause of myopia. Wrong!

Newer research shows that the studious kids simply don’t spend enough time outdoors.  It doesn’t matter what kids are doing because more time outdoors lowers the risk of myopia. This occurs in those kids with two nearsighted parents, less with one parent and least but still possible with neither parent.

Excessive lengthening of the eye during childhood (not visible when looking at the child) is the cause of myopia. A study from Taiwan showed that students who spent at least 200 minutes per week outside during school hours have significantly less worsening of nearsightedness and less excessive lengthening of the eyes.

Sunlight exposure, even in the shade, slows down this growth to a normal level. In a study of 6-year-old Chinese children, the addition of 40 minutes of outdoor activity a day reduced the incidence of myopia over the next three years.

Dr. Stephen H. Uretsky is a board-certified ophthalmologist with 30 years of practice experience who specializes in comprehensive eye care. Coastal Jersey Eye Center features an optical center, Classic Eyewear, which provides eyeglass frames and lenses to suit every style and budget. For more information on eye exams or to schedule an appointment, please call the Linwood office at 609.927.3373 or 609.465.7926 for the Cape May Court House office. Visit online at www.CoastalJerseyEye.com.

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