The hidden impact of pandemic learning on children’s eyesight

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For kids like seven-year-old Pirainila Sugumar, it’s a pandemic problem, hiding in plain sight.

“I was going without any glasses, and I got a minus-two eye power,” the Chanhassen second-grader says.

“Kind of an unintended consequence of online learning and pandemic life,” Dr. Zac Holland, her optometrist, adds.

Holland says that minus-two eye power means she can only see a few feet without glasses or contacts.

He says it’s progressively worse because of online schooling.

“The amount of near work and up-close focusing that kids do actually causes the eyeball to get longer over time,” Holland explains. “And when the eyeball gets longer the prescription increases.”

Holland says all that screen time causes the eyes to adjust to focusing at a close distance.

Inside the eye, light focuses in front of, instead of on the retina, and distant objects become blurry.

“If you can think of the retina as a screen, and if the projector is not in focus, the light isn’t focusing appropriately on the projector,” Holland notes. “When you get glasses or contact lenses, that’s focusing the projector back onto the retina.”

Eye doctors call it childhood myopia—also known as nearsightedness.

Pirainila’s parents say during remote learning in 2020, she was on a computer seven hours a day.

Initially, she didn’t realize there was a problem.

“I couldn’t see well, but I thought every person couldn’t see that well,” Pirainila says. “But after my dad told me I noticed everyone could see better than me. So that’s how I knew about my eye power.”

She isn’t alone.

Holland says his myopia treatment caseload increased more than 200% between 2020 and 2021.

A recent study by Emory University and the University of Michigan found “home confinement due to coronavirus appeared to be associated with a significant increase in vision-related problems.”

Researchers say they found a three-fold increase in child myopia in 2020 compared to the previous five years.

“You spend so much time looking at a screen,” says Congresswoman Angie Craig (D-2nd District). “This particular disease of childhood myopia really puts a strain on vision.”

Craig says after months of online learning during his junior and senior years in high school, her 18-year old son Isaac didn’t have to change his prescription, but he did have fatigue and eye strain.

After hearing similar stories from constituents, she and other House members sent a letter to the CDC, asking the agency to share guidelines for myopia with parents and health care providers.

“We want the CDC to do a better job of communicating to parents across the country that this is a real side effect of covid and at-home learning,” Craig says. “That we may not even completely understand the consequence of at this moment.”

But what about kids who returned to in-school learning last fall?

We checked in with 11-year old Mabelle Omar, who goes to middle school in Plymouth, asking if her eyesight had changed since last year.

“It hasn’t changed much,” she declared. “Even if there was, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it.”

5 Eyewitness News first met Mabelle and her mom Liliana last summer.

They told us she had been wearing glasses since she was seven. At-home learning had made her eyesight much worse.

With her most recent exam, there was some good news.

“The doctor said that Mabelle had no progression in her myopia, on her prescription,” Liliana smiled.

She says she believes in-school learning, cutting back on screen time, and more time outdoors made a difference.

“Spending more time outside, so she can adjust her vision and also doing other physical activities that are not only good for her health, but also for her vision,” Liliana says.

Eye doctors say there’s no way to reverse myopia.

But Maple Grove optometrist Jordan Keith says outdoor activities really do help.

“Just let them be kids and play outside,” he advises. “Being outside and not using those focusing muscles to read and getting sunlight is actually one way to help slow down the progression of nearsightedness.”

Holland has prescribed a multifocal soft contact lens for Pirainila.

The lenses spread light inside the retina, slowing that egg-shaped growth.

“It more appropriately aligns the light in the back of the eye with the retina,” Holland says. “Then it slows down the stimulus for the prescription increasing over time.”

Keith says there are also hard contacts that can slow down the progression of nearsightedness.

“These specialty hard lenses are like a retainer at night, and the cornea essentially grows into the shape of it,” he says. “Kids can spend the day seeing 20/20 without needing to wear glasses or contact lenses.”

Keith also says there are drops available that can slow down myopia in kids.

“It stunts the ability of those focusing muscles to work as hard as they usually do,” he notes. “And that’s been shown to reduce the progression of nearsightedness.”

Doctors say the highest risk of myopia progression is between the ages of eight and twelve, but that can vary.

They say early detection is key to protecting your child’s eyesight.

“Just educating parents to have their kids get routine eye checks,” Holland says. “Kind of screening patients to catch this stuff earlier, and prevent those high prescriptions from showing up.”

Experts caution it’s still too early to know the impact of back-in-school learning on kids’ eyesight.

Mabelle says she’s just glad it appears her eyesight has stabilized.

“Is that a good thing? I mean, you’re feeling better about that, that you’re not getting worse eyesight?” we asked.

“Yeah, that’s a good thing,” she smiled. “I feel better with that for sure.”

The American Optometric Association has a web page full of information for parents about myopia.

You can find that link here.