“She was about 7 years old when we realized she couldn’t see very far,” her mother says.
Like many children who learn from a distance, Mabelle has spent a lot of time online.
“I could tell things looked different,” says the fifth-grade Maple Grove student. “It started a bit slow, then it got really quick, when it all got blurry.”
Mabelle says it has gotten worse in the last few months.
“I would say it’s really horrible because if it’s my arm’s length, I could only see here, without my lenses and my glasses,” she said, holding out her hand.
Omar says homeschooling has been a safe and valuable learning tool. But she worries that all this screen time will affect her child’s vision.
“I think the pandemic made it worse, because they had to take distance education,” says Omar. “It wasn’t just the time after school behind the screen, it was also the time they had to spend behind the tablet or computer.”
Ophthalmologists KSTP spoke to said Mabelle’s case was not unique.
“Are we seeing more children with vision problems? Asks Dr. Bridget Axelson, optometrist from White Bear Lake. “We are. We are seeing an increase in myopia or myopia. “
5 EYEWITNESS NEWS contacted the Minnesota Department of Health and the Phillips Eye Institute. Neither has precise figures on how many children could be affected or why.
Axelson says she sees double or even triple the number of children with eye problems compared to before the pandemic.
“They’ve done some big jumps now that they’re coming for a test,” she said. “Their prescription has changed dramatically and they have suffered from blurred vision for almost two years.”
Experts say all that time in front of the screen causes the eyes to adjust to focusing at close range. Inside the eye, light is focused in front of the retina rather than on it. And distant objects become blurry.
Edina optometrist Dr Zac Holland says it can get worse.
“The closer we work, the more myopia progresses,” he says. “The width of the light is concentrated at the back of the eye. The light, on the other hand, lengthens the eyeball, and psychologically, when this happens, our prescription will increase over time.”
Holland says there are certain treatments that can slow myopia by as much as a third.
He says orthokeratology treatments, or Ortho-K for short, use specially designed rigid contact lenses.
Young Dutch patient Eric Zeng wears the lenses at night while he sleeps.
“We are looking at screens more than before the pandemic,” said the 12-year-old from Eden Prairie. “It basically molds your eye, so it’s at your correct curvature.”
“You can think of it as a retainer or a mold, that’s what we do with this type of lens,” Holland adds. “And that changes the curvature of the front surface of the eye, it’s shown here. When they take the lenses off, Eric can actually see 20/20. Before that, he should have been wearing glasses or contact lenses for see. “
Ophthalmologists also prescribe soft contact lenses, specially designed for the control of myopia.
Traditional contacts focus on the center of the retina, leaving a blur around the edges.
Axelson says these are different.
“These special contact lenses are designed to focus light on the entire retina,” she explains. “They cause less blurring, which we believe is the cause of the progression of myopia in some children.”
But blurry vision isn’t the only problem.
More and more patients are complaining of dry eyes. Axelson says face masks can force air into your eyes.
Long periods of screen, she says, can also cause problems.
“When we look at our devices all day, we don’t blink as much,” says Axelson. Typically, we blink once every few seconds. When we look at screens, our blink rate halves. Blinking is what distributes tears throughout our cornea and stimulates tear production. “
She suggests using artificial tears and taking short breaks, to get tears again.
Experts say there’s still a lot to learn about screen time and vision changes.
The Phillips Eye Institute says it could be several years before we know how many Minnesota children are newly affected by myopia.
Axelson recommends that parents get their kids not only to take breaks from screen time, but also to spend more time outdoors.
Holland says some research suggests that the wavelengths of sunlight can potentially slow myopia.
“We recommend that they take their children out every day for a few hours if possible, in the fresh air,” says Axelson. “Just to see the distance and get that natural daylight.”