One more reason, if needed, to keep children away from screens. By launching a campaign to raise public awareness of the global scourge of myopia on Friday, June 24, the Institute for Medical Education and Prevention (IEMP), located in Lyon, sounded the alarm. According to an Ipsos survey conducted from April 12 to 22 on behalf of this private establishment financed by the optical industry and mutual insurance companies, among a representative sample of 3,601 French people, children aged 3 to 6 spend today 3h 29 a day in activities requiring near vision: book, smartphone, tablet, computer, video game. This increases to 4:03 a.m. for 7-10-year-olds, 6:54 a.m. for 11-13-year-olds, and 7:28 a.m. for 14-18-year-olds.

These data could also be below reality. “They correspond to the assessment made by parents and are most likely underestimated,” notes Bruno Assouly, founder of the IEMP. Above all, they confirm the link between the use of screens and the surge in cases of refractive anomaly that is myopia, which results in blurred vision from afar and clear near vision.

“The significant time devoted to activities on screens strongly solicits near vision, as well as the low exposure to natural light, due to the reduction in outdoor activities and the extension of the duration of studies which promote the intensive work up close,” says Assouly.

Myopia is certainly hereditary: the risk in a child would be multiplied by two if one of his parents is myopic and by three to eight if both parents are. But genetic factors are only involved “in 10% of cases” and play a “less prominent” role than environmental factors, according to the EPMF. Ten years ago, the head of the ophthalmology department at the American Hospital in Paris refuted that time spent on screens favors the development of myopia, on the grounds that this “theory”, he said, did not find , at the time, “no scientific support”.

A global phenomenon

In 2022, no one dares to say such things anymore. “Children today are watching more screens and reading more closely than ever before. This induces the contraction of a muscle which deforms the lens. To avoid this, the eye will automatically grow bigger and cause myopia,” says Dr. Thomas Jona Wolfensberger, chief physician at the Jules-Gonin University Ophthalmic Clinic in Lausanne, Switzerland, a facility unrelated to the awareness initiative taken. by the IMP.

This pathology can be caused by an excessively curved cornea or an opacity of the lens, but it is “essentially due” to an excessive elongation of the eyeball: in myopic people, the eye is abnormally elongated, instead of presenting a spherical shape . The image of distant objects is therefore formed on a plane located in front of the retina, which makes it blurry.

A global phenomenon to which the American Academy of Ophthalmology drew attention in 2016, in a report compiling the results of 145 studies carried out among 2.1 million people on all continents (Global Prevalence of Myopia and High Myopia and Temporal Trends from 2000 through 2050). This document then struck the scientific community, predicting that myopia would affect half of humanity (49.8%, or 4.758 billion people) by 2050.

Solutions to slow down the phenomenon

To do well, professionals repeat that it is absolutely necessary to prevent any child under the age of 3 from having their parents’ smartphone in their hands. Beyond this age, they recommend that adults give their offspring a twenty-second break every twenty minutes, looking into the distance.

“It’s quite complicated to implement,” admits Dominique Bremond-Gignac, head of the ophthalmology department at the Necker-Enfants Malades hospital in Paris. The latter insists on the pathologies that myopia can ultimately generate when it is neither detected in time nor slowed down. “The child’s eye is not a miniature eye and the problem of myopia goes far beyond the issue of vision itself,” she notes.

In 2050, 1 billion humans could suffer from myopia greater than −6 diopters, which causes blurred vision from 16 centimeters away. This population is at high risk of being prone to macular degeneration, a degradation of part of the retina (the macula), which can lead to the loss of central vision after the age of 50. Other risks, multiplied by thirty compared to an individual without myopia: retinal detachment, open-angle glaucoma (a lesion of the optic nerve) and cataracts. The general public ignores this reality.

“A majority of French people do not know that the earlier myopia starts, the faster it evolves. More than eight out of ten interviewees do not imagine that myopia can lead to complications including blindness,” the Ipsos survey points out. However, there are solutions to slow down the phenomenon. Emancipate yourself as much as possible from screens, therefore. Reduce, too, extended reading time within 30 centimeters of a book or magazine. And go out at least two hours a day, to expose yourself to natural light.

“A disturbing surge before adolescence”

“Dopamine, a neurotransmitter produced in the retina under the effect of light, plays a crucial role in the proper transmission of images to the brain and is thought to prevent excessive growth of the eye from birth until 25 years old,” notes Béatrice Cochener, Director of the Faculty of Medicine of Brest and President of the French Academy of Ophthalmology.

Until now, the West seemed relatively spared compared to some Asian countries, such as China, where nine out of ten children wear glasses. However, ethnic disparities are rapidly fading. “Between 1950 and 2050, the prevalence will increase from 15% to 60% within the French population, with a worrying surge before adolescence,” warns Thierry Bour, president of the National Union of Ophthalmologists of France.

All these messages will be the subject of a display of the EPMF in medical practices, in particular ophthalmological and pediatric. A website has also just been opened to call for vigilance. It is time for general mobilization against what some professionals compare, by its magnitude, to a pandemic.