Like to relax with your phone? It causes nearsightedness

More young people are nearsighted than before. The cause: phones and less outdoor play. Studium Generale is having a lecture on the subject this Wednesday.

Look around you. What have you been looking at today? Thousands of letters in your study book and latte art in the shape of a heart. A colourful sunset on Instagram and a recipe for peanut butter brownies on TikTok. Most of us look at countless things every day. How many of them do we see through our phones?

A lot, says ophthalmology professor Nomdo Jansonius. ‘Nowadays we start looking at screens from a young age, often for long periods of time, causing our eyes to focus on an object close by for a long time,’ he says. This has led to more people becoming nearsighted.

Far from innocent

So more people need glasses or contact lenses. But nearsightedness is far from innocent. At an older age, nearsighted people are more vulnerable to age-related eye diseases. ‘Increased eye pressure, for example, or detachment of the retina,’ he says.

It is not the screen itself that causes more nearsightedness, also known as myopia. ‘In fact, looking at your phone is no different from reading a book,’ says Jansonius. ‘There has always been a correlation between nearsightedness and highly educated people because they often literally have their noses in books.’

Close objects

The problem, according to Jansonius, is that due to the rise of phones and social media, we focus on an object close by for too long. We sit close to screens and papers for our work and our studies, but also in our free time. ‘Many people now relax by looking at their phone or tablet instead of playing sports or going outside.’

It’s important to regularly look at things that are farther away. When you look at your phone, your eyes adjust a little, Jansonius explains. If you do this for too long, this adjustment becomes permanent. But if you focus on a target on the other side of the football field for a few hours a day, your eye will spring back to its original state.

Experiment

When your sight gets blurry, your eye grows until you have a sharp image again, Jansonius continues. A well-known experiment involved a chicken: researchers covered one eye of the chicken with a piece of frosted glass, so that this eye could not see clearly. The covered eye kept growing – and therefore became more nearsighted.

If you don’t give the eye a chance to spring back, you’ll have a problem. ‘It will make you nearsighted: your eye has stretched out so much the retina has trouble focusing on objects farther away.’

Jewish school

A study done at a Jewish school and a public school illustrates this nicely: the boys at the Jewish school spent hours studying the Torah, while the girls and students at the public school played outside. As a result, nearsightedness was much more common among the Jewish boys.

‘In the past, we used to say: nearsightedness usually starts in high school, and by the age of fifteen, you will have reached your definitive prescription,’ says Jansonius. ‘Some people may become a little more nearsighted when they go to university. But because of phones, this has completely changed.’

Visible effects

Age plays a big role in this. Young children in primary school or in the first years of secondary school have a greater chance of becoming nearsighted if they spend a lot of time on their phone or tablet. And the effects are already visible.

‘In large Asian cities, nearsightedness is already common in primary school: about 80 to 90 percent of children are nearsighted at the end of their school years,’ says Jansonius. ‘A real myopia epidemic.’ Outside Asia, the effects are less pronounced.

But, emphasises the eye doctor, screens are not only disadvantageous. A laptop or TV is already better than a phone, because they are farther away. Additionally, they are useful for visually impaired people and the elderly. ‘You can increase the contrast and adjust the font size, so there are many possibilities to see well.’

Want to know more? At Studium Generale, former dean of Talent Development Ritsert Jansen, nearsighted himself, will talk about the effects phones have on our eyes on Wednesday, January 24 (starting at 8:00 p.m. at House of Connections on the Grote Markt).

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