Jurong Bird Park in Singapore

At Jurong Bird park, your children can spot birds in the distance. It’s fun, and a good change from looking at books and screens.

Are your children spending enough time playing outdoors in the sunlight? If they aren’t they could be permanently damaging their eyesight. That’s the result of several studies examining the effect of extended periods of “near work” like homework, computer games and television-watching on childhood vision problems.

It’s also the focus of Singapore’s Health promotion Board, which has been working with schools to ensure a healthy balance of school work and outdoor play. In fact, the Singapore government considers it so important, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently issued a statement asking parents to ensure their children take frequent breaks from schoolwork and limit their time on the computer.

Why the fuss?

Myopia among children has been on the rise in Singapore and other Asian countries for several years, and researchers have been looking for causes so they can reverse the trend. In fact, in one study specifically of schoolchildren from Singapore, high myopia (defined as -6.0 D or more) was found in 17 percent of children from nine to 11 years of age, and low to moderate myopia occurred in nearly half of all seven-year-old children. In addition to the current problems associated with myopia including the need for corrective lenses, the study noted these children are at significant risk for serious eye diseases later in life, including macular degeneration and retinal tears. That study recommends regular screening of children with myopia to look for signs of “potentially blinding conditions.”

A similar study evaluating myopia in Asian schoolchildren found a direct relationship between the length of time spent doing close-up work like schoolwork and the degree of myopia and suggests the need for behavior modification to help improve vision.

Even more telling is a recent study from researchers in Australia, which found that the higher prevalence of myopia in Asian schoolchildren “seems to be associated with increasing educational pressures, combined with life-style changes, which have reduced the time children spend outside.” Exposure to sunlight, the study noted, encourages the retina to release a chemical substance that prevents the eye’s axial length from increasing too rapidly, a condition that causes most cases of myopia.

So what should you do?

Follow PM Lee’s advice and make sure your children take frequent breaks from schoolwork and other activity that requires close focusing. And make sure they spend plenty of time outdoors, where focusing is more long-range and where their eyes can receive the sunlight they need to stay healthy.

Help Prevent Myopia: Send Your Kids Outside to Play

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