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KCTV 5: Study shows getting kids outside more can help their vision

Spring weather means more time outdoors and that could be good for your kids in more ways than you know.

New research suggests being exposed to sunlight could keep them from needing glasses when they get older.

In the past ten years, there has been a lot of research on myopia, the clinical term for nearsightedness. The question has revolved around why more people are nearsighted now than 40 years ago.

“There’s so much information out there that parents kind of get overwhelmed with it,” said Dr. Christina Twardowski.

That’s why Twardowski and her colleagues created a clinic three years ago at Children’s Mercy specific to myopia. Sometimes, myopia is hereditary, but not always, hence the focus on what behaviors cause it, and it’s commonly accepted that it happens gradually. Most people don’t need to get glasses for distance until they are teens or young adults, but the cause may go back to childhood behavior.

“All of these are really theories. Nobody knows exactly what is causing myopia to increase or what is causing it to progress,” said Twardowski.

One theory that has garnered attention involves the increased use of tablets and smartphones by kids. Twardowski says the connection there isn’t so much the screen glare as it is how close they are to the screen.

That’s the theory Shawnee parent Julie Breithaupt was aware of. She was born with a congenital vision defect, so she’s more vigilant about her kids’ eyesight than most parents. But she and her husband limit her 4-year-old daughter’s time on the iPhone for other reasons. She values social interaction and is troubled by how the little screen transfixes her daughter, Mia, and sends her into what she calls “zombie mode.”

“If we're trying to say anything to her or get her to answer a question, it's just like she’s zoned out,” said Breithaupt. “That is definitely a red flag warning to us to take it away immediately.”

More recently researchers have drawn attention to what kids are not doing when they’re inside staring at their tiny screens. They’ve noticed that people who spent more time outdoors as children are less likely to be myopic.

“Any time you were looking at something up close you have to focus on that, but when you're outside and you're just playing most of what you're looking at you probably don't have to focus on as much,” said Twardowski, giving one explanation.

Another possible explanation has to do with the UVB rays of the sun.

“One of the theories is that having UV exposure is actually helping regulate the diurnal rhythm inside your eye,” said Twardowski.

It’s welcome news for Breithaupt.

Right now, Mia enjoys make-believe. She has some invisible friends and can be found telling you what she’s painting with a dry paintbrush. Breithaupt and her husband also try to get their two girls outdoors regularly.

“I grew up in a small town out in the country. We didn't have cable television, and so we were always outside,” said Breithaupt. “My husband grew up in a small town and kind of the same thing. He was always outside and playing, so that's really important to me for both of my girls.”

Like their small screen restrictions, the motivation had nothing to do with eyesight, but it’s an added bonus if it works. That’s one reason why it’s one of Twardowski’s favorite theories.

“It doesn't require the patient or parent to do any treatment,” she said. “It's simply - go outside and play - and I love that.” She added that healthy habits will simply prevent it or slow the progression of myopia. It’s not something that can be reversed.

Also, parents should not forget the long-known negative connection to UV exposure: skin cancer. That’s why outdoor time should still involve sunscreen.


See the full story via KCTV 5.

Learn more about the Division of Ophthalmology at Children's Mercy.