Scientists have been tracking a big global increase in cases of myopia. Is our love affair with screens to blame?

Myopia, or shortsightedness, means that the eye has difficulty seeing objects at a distance.
Updated 18 September 2018

Scientists have been tracking a big global increase in cases of myopia. Is our love affair with screens to blame?

  • An epidemic of human shortsightedness is now sweeping the world
  • Between 2000 and 2050 the number of short-sighted people on the planet will rise from 1.5 billion to about 5 billion, an increase of more than 230 percent

LONDON: We think of evolution as a glacially slow business, a gradual adaptation of physical or behavioral characteristics over thousands of years in response to environmental prompts. 

Lions with short teeth struggle to bring down prey to feed themselves and their offspring. In time, they and their inadequate dentistry vanish from the gene pool, surrendering the savannah to lions with longer teeth. In fact, in 1859 Charles Darwin, noting the “astonishing” variety of breeds descended from a single species of pigeon, identified two types of evolutionary change — slow and incremental, and rapid and dramatic. The latter he termed “monstrosities,” a “considerable deviation of structure in one part, either injurious to or not useful to the species.” 

That’s a definition that could well be applied to the epidemic of human shortsightedness now sweeping the world.

Over time, evolution gave us excellent sight. If you couldn’t see well, you couldn’t hunt for food or dodge the carnivores hunting you, which meant you either starved or were eaten and your genes would not be passed on. Natural selection at play. But now changes in lifestyle are, by evolutionary standards, almost overnight sabotaging tens of thousands of years of fine-honing visual acuity.

Over the past few years, research analyzing decades of data has shown that myopia has become increasingly common. This brings a range of consequences, from the cost and lifestyle-hampering inconvenience of the need for glasses or contact lenses, to the long-term complications of myopia, which increases the risk of cataracts, glaucoma and even retinal detachment later in life.

A paper published in the journal Ophthalmology in 2016, based on a systematic review of 145 studies from around the world, concluded that between 2000 and 2050 the number of short-sighted people on the planet will rise from 1.5 billion to about 5 billion, an increase of more than 230 percent.

About half of young people in Europe and the US are  shortsighted — twice as many as 50 years ago. The situation is even worse in East Asia, which, according to a report in the journal Nature, “has been gripped by an unprecedented rise in myopia,” affecting up to 90 percent of Chinese teens and young adults.

You don’t have to look far to see one possible cause. All around the world, people are staring at screens. At the same time, the average number of hours spent studying during childhood has also increased dramatically.

In today’s competitive global jobs market, a high premium is placed on education in many countries, including China, and children spend many hours staring at books or computer screens. So it does not come as a surprise to learn that researchers have found a direct correlation between shortsightedness and levels of educational attainment. In other words, there is truth in the old stereotype of the bespectacled swot.

But that is not the whole picture. Research in the US, Australia and Israel has suggested that time spent staring at books or screens is not the problem so much as the attendant reduction in time spent outdoors.

This first became evident in a study among the Inuit in the north of Alaska, where in one generation shortsightedness went from being almost non-existent to affecting one child in two as children spent less and less time engaging with traditional, outdoor pursuits, such as hunting.

Another study, in Australia, found that “higher levels of total time spent outdoors is associated with less myopia,” a finding replicated by a UK study in June this year. This provided strong evidence that “more time spent in education is a causal risk factor for myopia” and concluded that “the best recommendation, based on the highest quality available evidence at the moment, is for children to spend more time outside.”

That advice is seemingly upheld by a number of studies that myopia presents less commonly among children in certain countries in the Middle East — possibly because there is less emphasis, especially in remote rural areas, on intensive education. One study, among 400,000 children in Oman in 2003, found only 4.1 percent were shortsighted — a dramatically smaller percentage than in east Asia — and similar results have been reported in Iran.

Research in Amman, Jordan, found increased incidence of myopia was “significantly associated with ... computer use, and reading and writing outside school,” while playing sports reduced the risk. A study of the epidemic of shortsightedness among East Asian children, published this month in the journal Ophthalmology, concluded that prolonged attendance in crammer schools is a major risk factor for myopia among children aged 7 to 12. 

One country apparently bucking the global myopia trend is Norway, where educational standards are high. A paper published this month in the journal Scientific Trends suggests that this might be because “being outdoors is a part of the Norwegian culture and a major part of growing up.”

Children in Norwegian kindergartens spend two hours a day outdoors in the winter and at least four in the summer. At primary school all breaks are taken outdoors. Exposure patterns “quite different from those of children attending East Asian schools, where recess time usually is spent indoors.” Research from Taiwan has suggested that it is necessary for children to spend a minimum of two hours outdoors every day to prevent the onset of myopia.

As yet, no one has quite worked out why spending more time outdoors is good for our eyes, especially during the developmental years of childhood. But the message is clear: The competitive drive to equip our children with the best possible education must be balanced with the need to preserve their eyesight, a lesson that should be borne in mind as countries in the Middle East, particularly the Gulf Cooperation Council, recalibrate school systems for the new age.

For parents, schools and policymakers, that means making sure that our children spend as much time gazing toward the horizon, as toward their futures. Anything else is just plain short-sighted. 

 

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK. He specializes in health, a subject on which he writes for the British Medical Journal and others.
© Syndication Bureau


Gerard Butler talks family and high-octane action films

Updated 30 September 2020

Gerard Butler talks family and high-octane action films

LOS ANGELES: Hollywood’s latest disaster movie offering, “Greenland,” sees humanity threatened by a comet on a collision course with Earth — Arab News sat down with stars Gerard Butler and Morena Baccarin to find out more about the high-octane film.

While many disaster movies focus on experts in big-picture attempts to stop the disaster, “Greenland” keeps the stakes personal by following the Garrity family as they journey to find shelter before it’s too late.

“This story is so relatable because this guy, he’s not a Secret Service agent. He’s not a superhero,” Butler said of his character, John Garrity. “He’s just a dad and he’s not even a perfect dad.”

“Greenland” follows the Garrity family as they journey to find shelter before it’s too late. Supplied

As meteorites decimate cities and people give in to panic, the estranged Garrity family grows closer, mirroring Butler’s real-life relationships with his parents, who despite having not seen him in months due to COVID-19 restrictions, are still just as doting as ever. 

“It’s very sweet that they still care and you’re still their little boy,” Butler said, adding that he mined his relationship with his parents for insight on how to play a caring father. “That definitely helped me in the role, to play that father who will do anything in these trying times to try and protect his family in the midst of this craziness.”

The film was directed by Ric Roman Waugh. Supplied

And while their characters were growing closer, the actors formed a tight knit group as well. Co-star Morena Baccarin told Arab News that she coached and comforted the actor playing the family’s young son — Roger Dale Flloyd — and that she and Butler became good friends on set.

“There are days where you’re just so tired and you’re not in the mood or you don’t want to put yourself through the ringer emotionally,” Baccarin — who plays estranged wife Allison Garrity — said, adding “we just could check in with each other and be there for each other and that was really nice.”

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh, the film has faced repeated delays in the US, but has already hit the big screens in some international markets — including Saudi Arabia and the UAE — where COVID-19 regulations have been amended.