Many have spent a lot of time staring at screens during the pandemic, and a recent study shows that increased screen time may have impacted kids' vision.
It's an issue that Matt Oerding says has impacted his 11-year-old daughter, Kate.
"During the pandemic, while she was virtually learning, in eight months her myopia worsened by over a diopter," Oerding said. Even despite treatment which we know was helping her, her myopia really went through the roof over the last year."
Kate has myopia or nearsightedness. Oerding began to notice it when Kate was in third grade when he saw her squinting at a menu in a restaurant.
"That was the first time I saw her squinting, and the problem for kids is it happens gradually — usually between that eight- to 12-time frame, and they don't always know right away their vision is getting worse," he said.
Nearsightedness is becoming a bigger problem for children. Oerding has seen it as the CEO and co-founder of Treehouse Eyes, a company focused on treating myopic kids in the U.S.
"Especially over the last year with the pandemic, we're seeing myopia rates in children even accelerating further," he said.
A study done by the JAMA Network found that in 2020, there was a substantial shift in the vision for 6- to 8-year-old children. Over 123,000 kids from 6 to 13 years old were part of the study.
"Even before the pandemic, there has been something driving more children to become myopic," Oerding said.
Dr. William Reynolds of the American Optometric Association says increased nearsightedness has been a growing problem for decades.
"Over the last two decades, there's been an increase in myopia or nearsightedness worldwide, not just in the United States. And that corresponds with an increase in near devices, especially digital devices," Reynolds said.
Screens aren't the only thing to blame.
"The data tells us it's really prolonged near work — so reading or screens that are associated with a higher rate of nearsightedness in children," said Dr. Emily McCourt, the chief of ophthalmology at Children's Hospital Colorado.
McCourt said the digital learning environment usually means kids are spending more time on "near work" or looking at things up close.
"If you think about an actual classroom setting, your children would be looking at the teacher far away every once in a while, or looking at the clock," McCourt said. "When they're just in front of the computer, they are really missing that change in the focal point, that change in where they're looking."
She added that there are a few things kids can do to help prevent myopia down the road.
"The only proven intervention to decrease the chance that your kid has myopia is to increase their outdoor time," McCourt said. "Take a rest every 20 minutes from your prolonged near work, and I think that makes sense both for digital eye strain and also for the prevention of myopia."
For kids like Kate who already have myopia, there are other ways to help slow the progression.
"Here are two things that are proven to work to slow the progression or decrease the thickness of the glasses," McCourt said. "One of those is multi-focal contact lenses, and the other way is a low dose dilating drop called atropine that you give your child every day."
Oerding said for parents, it all starts with being aware and bringing children in for regular eye exams.
"We're just hearing and seeing a lot more reports of myopia in kids. We're hearing it in our centers around the country," he said.