Smartphone screens are fuelling an epidemic of short-sightedness

Alert: concentrating on a small screen for hours can damage a child's eyes: Alamy

Peering at smartphones indoors and not playing outside is fuelling short-sightedness among young Londoners, a specialist at Moorfields Eye Hospital warned today.

Annegret Dahlmann-Noor said progressive myopia — the worsening of young patients’ vision as they age — is twice as common in primary school children as it was 50 years ago.

It has led to an increase in referrals from London’s optometrists for youngsters with short-sightedness.

The consultant ophthalmologist said: “Parents are very concerned about the number of hours spent on devices.

“They tell me that their child is spending four hours a day on a smartphone or iPad — typically it’s the smaller screens that are concerning. The detail is very small, they have to keep the eyes in a constant focus stage to see things clearly for hours and hours.

“It’s very often a regular topic of the consultation. It appears that people who study a lot, or are on devices a lot, miss out on being outdoors, and miss out on the direct effect of sunlight on eye growth in the early years.”

Short-sightedness in primary school children has risen to 16.4 per cent from seven per cent in the Sixties. Symptoms include the child complaining of blurred vision or teachers noticing a pupil’s problem copying things incorrectly. Children are encouraged to go outside for 30 minutes for every 90 minutes they are indoors. Otherwise, eyeballs can grow slightly longer, which makes images blurred.

Myopia is also genetic, but Ms Dahlmann-Noor said the condition is “starting earlier and progressing faster”. This can put patients at risk of glaucoma.

Ms Dahlmann-Noor, a paediatric specialist, said another issue was that parents often researched their children’s myopia online and bought medicines in an attempt to treat the problem.

“For us the frustration is that people come these days with print-outs from the internet, so they know about randomised control trials that have been going on in Singapore, or they buy atropine eye drops over there,” she said. “They bring their own drops and then they want to be monitored in London.

“They also ask for special contact lenses that reshape the cornea at the front of the eye overnight, but there is high risk of infection.”