My Eyesight Is Getting Worse. Could It Be Related to the Pandemic?
Canadian experts share how the pandemic may have impacted our eye health, and what to do about it.
During the pandemic, I spent more time looking at screens than doing literally anything else.
When I wasn’t glued to my laptop for work, I was trying to maintain relationships in group chats and connections with my family via WhatsApp. I kept up with friends I hadn’t seen in months via social media. And with restaurants, events and activities shut down, my evenings were filled with episode after episode of the latest crime drama.
I am ever-so-slightly nearsighted, what eyecare professionals refer to as myopic. Over the past decade, my prescription has stayed consistently so low that I basically only wear my glasses while driving or watching movies with subtitles. But after months of this screen-to-screen routine, I noticed street sights were blurrier. Was my eyesight getting worse? My optometrist recently confirmed that my prescription has changed—and noted she’s seen a surge in patients with the same issue.
A cross-sectional study of more than 123,000 children in China, ages 6 to 13, recently brought the impact of the pandemic on eyesight into focus. The researchers found that being stuck at home, spending less time outdoors and more time on screens, resulted in “a significant myopic shift” for the study participants.
Similar data isn’t yet available for Canadians, but anecdotally, Toronto optometrist Dr. Naomi Kong says in the past year, she has “absolutely” heard more patients complain of eyesight issues. We switched our in-person meetings to all-Zoom all the time. We’re not taking breaks as much as we used to and we’re staring unblinkingly at our screens, without any of the usual distractions.
At the University of Waterloo, optometrist and professor Dr. Debbie Jones, who primarily treats children under age 8, is seeing patients who have spent the past 18 months learning online and on digital devices, and lacking time outside. She’s now seeing more myopia among her young patients than she’s ever seen before. “So, you have to put them all together and say there must be a link,” she says.
To learn more, Best Health spoke with Kong and Jones about the pandemic’s impact on our eyesight, tips for how to protect our eye health and the importance of routine eye care.
When it comes to screen time, does it matter what type of screens we’re starting at? For instance, is there a difference between a lot of computer time versus binge-watching TV?
Evidence points to handheld screens as being the worst culprits, says Jones, such as cellphones or staring at a tablet screen held inches away from your face. “Those things that are being held close, we feel that’s really what’s causing the problem,” she says.
Jones explains that by focusing our attention on close objects, we are training our brain to adapt to a shorter field of vision, and to deprioritize distance vision.
Sometimes when my eyes are feeling really tired, I will take a break and read a book—but is that actually helping?
Since we hold books at the same distance as say tablets or phones, going analog isn’t necessarily the best solution. “Anything that’s close, you’re exerting more focusing efforts,” says Jones, and that includes books. Instead, she advises going outdoors, a setting that naturally gets us to look into the distance.
In addition to myopia, are there other eye problems that have seemingly become more prevalent during the pandemic?
The two other complaints Kong and Jones hear from patients are dry eyes and irritation, both of which can be linked to screen time, air-conditioned environments and just generally blinking less because we don’t encounter as many distractions at home. In an office, Jones explains, you might have colleagues pulling your attention away from your screen or you may get up to get some water. Working from home, we’re sitting for longer periods of time without taking breaks, which can cause more dryness and irritation, and exacerbate these types of underlying eye issues.
Many of us are still working from home, and spending lots of time on screens, so what can to protect our eyesight from getting worse?
Jones and Kong agree that one of the best strategies to protect your eyes is the 20/20/20 rule.
“Every 20 minutes, take a 20 second break and look at something 20 feet away,” explains Kong. “It relaxes your eyes and promotes active blinking, which is really beneficial.”
Don’t stress about looking at something exactly 20 feet away, says Jones. The approach still works as long as you are focusing on objects far away. For those working from home, she recommends positioning your screen close to a window, so you can easily look into the distance throughout the workday.
Beyond the 20/20/20 rule, Kong also advises doing some hard blinks to help avoid dryness, and staying away from screens before bed to reduce exposure to blue light and improve sleep.
Since COVID-19 isn’t fully under control yet, is it safe to get an eye exam in Canada?
Short answer: Yes.
“Optometrists have been deemed essential frontline workers, so eye clinics remain open for regular appointments—not just urgent care,” Jones said in a recent University of Waterloo press release.
Further, Jones stresses the importance of routine eye care, which means annual optometrist visits for children and every two years for adults. In her clinic at the University of Waterloo, she tells parents, “You don’t open up a kid’s mouth, take a look and if you don’t see a cavity, say they’re all good. You take them to the dentist to check.” The same follows for eye care, particularly with children whose eyes are still developing.
“Don’t just assume your eyes are fine,” she cautions.