By Graham Freeman, clinical services manager, Black & Lizars

IT’S been described as a global epidemic and now one Chinese province is planning to combat soaring rates of short-sightedness amongst children by banning app-based homework.

In China, the problem is particularly acute with 77 per cent of high school pupils suffering from myopia – the medical term for being short-sighted. In the UK, almost one in five teenagers are short-sighted.

The steps being taken in Zhejiang, where the ban on app-based homework has been proposed, would suggest that using smartphones and tablets is directly to blame for the growing problem. But the reality is that a combination of factors is behind the growing issue, including genetics, lack of time spent outside by young children and prolonged close-up work, whether that is reading books or using digital devices where peripheral light rays going into the eye cause it to elongate.

With 80 per cent of learning estimated to be visual, it is clear short-sightedness poses a major risk to academic progression. If your child can’t see the whiteboard they are much more likely to face difficulties in the classroom. So, should we be following China’s suit to give our kids a better chance of healthy sight?

A ban isn’t practical now that tech is so integrated into our lives, but the truth is that that we need to take a more robust approach to children’s use of devices and to their eye health in general.

Being a parent is hard work and it is tempting to let your child browse the iPad while for 20 minutes while you prepare dinner or deal with that urgent call. But it’s crucial that we regulate screen time and encourage our children to take regular breaks when they are using devices. The 20-20-20 rule, where every 20 minutes, you look 20 metres away for 20 seconds is a good start.

Tackling screen time should be a team effort. We would all benefit from ditching devices at the dinner table and switching screens off at least an hour before bedtime. Exposure to the blue light that is emitted from screens is known to disrupt our body clocks and reduce our chances of a good night’s sleep. And if you really need to get tough, you could change the wifi password.

The eye health issues associated with screen time are wider than short-sightedness. When we concentrate on something, be it at a distance or close-up, we don’t blink as much. When we don’t blink, we don’t spread our natural tears across our eyes and in turn this can lead to dry eyes and infections. We’re increasingly seeing children in our clinics suffering with dry eyes from overuse of digital media.

Close work can also lead to overworking the muscles inside the eyes that help you to focus. When you can’t relax these muscles, it becomes much harder to see in the distance and in the end, it becomes harder to read.

Around exam time, we regularly see an increase in children whose sight has been affected because they’ve been studying so hard. It’s a bit like undertaking a punishing work-out at the gym – you can only lift a particular weight for so long before your arms become tired and need time to recover.

It is also vital to take children for regular eye tests, which remain free of charge to all patients in Scotland. According to research published last year by the Association of Optometrists, almost a quarter – 24 per cent of children aged 4-16 – have never been taken for an eye test by their parents. And while most parents know if their children can see, the only way to know how well they can see is to take them for an eye test.

The good news is that if myopia is detected there is an increasing range of treatments available including special contact lenses to help slow progression and spectacles that act in a similar way are also being developed. If you want your children to be top of the class, monitor and control screen time, get them outdoors and have regular eye tests – the exam that really counts.