Is doing homework… short-sighted?

Being the odd one out is never fun. When we were all kids, my two sisters and I visited the local optometrist for a check-up. Being my first time, I was nervous. What if I had terrible vision? What if I unknowingly couldn’t see 80% of all the colours? Or what if, gods forbid, I was… BLIND?

But when we finally arrived, most of the worries left my mind. The tests were so interesting! And that colour blindness test book? I thought that thing was seriously cool. The dots and colours were fascinating. Then there was the fact some people could see letters and numbers when others could not, which could only be explained by magic, of course. One page was even intentionally made without any visible symbols (I hope!), but I noticed it quickly. You weren’t fooling me, Mr Optometrist!

A typical Ishihara test showing the number 6. Yes, I still think it’s cool! (Apologies to those who cannot see it!) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Afterwards, I walked around the store, surrounded glasses frames of all shapes and sizes. I began trying some on, imagining how nice it would be if I could own a stylish pair. My friends at school were going to be amazed!

So you can imagine the dismay I felt when I found out my eyes were perfectly fine. My two sisters learned they were both short-sighted, just like my parents. Everyone else in my family now owned glasses, and I inwardly felt like the unluckiest child since the dawn of time.

Why the difference? I’m not adopted!

Today, I can clearly see the foolishness my younger self, and begin to wonder what made me different to my sisters. The many ball-to-face incidents in P.E. classes taught me that I was probably lucky not to own a pair.

Recently, I attended a seminar by Professor Kathryn Rose, which brought all these memories rushing back.

Short-sightedness, also known as myopia, is a condition where close-range objects can be seen in focus but distant objects remain blurred. It is generally caused when the eyeball is too long from the front to the back. As such, light is unable to properly focus on the retina – tissue that converts light information into neural signals for the brain.

Light enters the eye from the left but fails to focus well on the retina. Source: National Eye Institute via Wikimedia Commons

That might sound scary, but don’t worry! Myopia is extremely common, and can be corrected through several methods, including corrective glasses, contact lenses and refractive surgery. Correction is relatively simple and affordable.

What’s interesting is that myopia seems to be highly related to the environment and activities you participate in. Initially believed to be a result of genetics, the view on the cause of myopia changed when prevalence of the condition grew massively in East Asian countries compared to that of North America and Europe. Such a sudden change could only be a result of the environment, not genetics.

Studies eventually landed on three factors that seemed to be well-associated with being short-sighted: your level of education, time doing near work and time outdoors.

Higher levels of education, more near work (for example, desk work) and spending more time out of the sun all seem to increase the risk of myopia. Is it just me, or does this sound like the perfect excuse to go to the beach?

What does that mean for all that study I just did?

QUICK! Stop reading this and get out into the sun before it’s too late!

…only kidding!

Before you go to your boss/teacher and tell them you quit doing work, let me quickly say that you can still do all of that without causing eye problems for yourself! (Don’t worry, my dreams are crushed too…)

What seems to be the best way forward is to have a good balance between working and having fun outdoors. We all need to remember to step away from our desks every now and then, and remember that there’s a whole world out there!

The best time to start is from a young age, when many people begin to show the earliest signs of short-sightedness. School-based programs where children are encouraged to spend a certain amount of time outdoors have shown promising results, decreasing the risk of myopia.

So what have I personally taken away from this the most? It’s probably evidence I’m a lot lazier than my sisters when it comes to studying, and that’s why I didn’t need glasses. Don’t show this to my parents!


5 Responses to “Is doing homework… short-sighted?”

  1. Ashley Densham says:

    Very humorous post Jonathan, and enjoyed the personal narrative throughout. Can attest that after studying for my year 12 exams I noticed my eyesight had deteriorated. It took about three to four months travelling (being outside mostly!) for it to return to normal. Interesting to see that there’s science behind this.

  2. Jonathan Lay says:

    Hi @tdevine, thanks for the compliment! That’s a great question, but to my knowledge, the mechanism behind the link between near work and myopia is still unclear. I think it’s possibly a combination of both the points you’ve made – eye strain from lots of near work along with reduced ‘experience’ of seeing distant objects both contributing to the anatomical change of the eye that leads to myopia. Sorry I couldn’t provide a better answer, but I hope this helps!

  3. tdevine says:

    Loved the tone of the piece! You did a really good job of explaining myopia, and breaking down the technical side. I developed short-sightedness during high school – from the research you did, did you find that it was due to the eye spending more time focusing on things at a short distance (i.e. reading), and not getting enough ‘experience’ at the long-range sight (outside, for example), and losing some of the ability to focus? Or was it more strain-based? Really interesting stuff!

  4. Oakley Germech says:

    Great blog, Jonathan! Really well-explained conceptually – and I never knew that myopia was so strongly affected by our own behaviour. I’ll have to get outside more!!

  5. Yvette H. says:

    Fascinating to hear of the connection between spending time indoors studying and short-sightedness, and how the connection was discovered. This read really well, and I enjoyed how you connected the information to your own experiences!

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