Kids’ visual abilities suffering

Optometrist Robert Nettl at his Newton Park practice
Picture: Deneesha Pillay

Digital age impacts on children’s vision, writes Estelle Ellis

The digital age is having a detrimental effect on children’s visual abilities as well as other aspects of their physical and mental development as they increasingly zoom in close on mobile phones and computer screens.

After 30 years of specialised work with vision-related problems in children, Port Elizabeth optometrist Robert Nettl says he has seen a frightening escalation in these problems this year and that urgent intervention is needed.

Nettl, a behavioural optometrist, screened more than 800 children this year and found extensive problems in reading, reversing letters and numbers, and copying from the blackboard in class.

He said only between 5% and 9% of children he screened had not had problems.

Nettl said his findings were frightening. “I have screened more than 800 children, from Grade R to Grade 3, at various schools in Port Elizabeth this year and the statistics show deterioration in all grades.”

He found that 66% of boys and 65% of girls had vision problems affecting their ability to read, and 32% of boys and 35% of girls were reversing letters and numbers.

Nettl said the biggest problem was that children were holding their faces too close to books when they read or wrote.

The distance from the elbow to the chin was a safe distance for eyes to be from a book for reading and writing.

The biggest problem was that most children were occupied all day with their cellphones, their computers and their Playstations and these screens were all close to their faces.

“Unfortunately there are still many schools in and around PE which have not realised the impact of vision-related learning problems in learners.

“Reading, copying and reversals have generally nothing to do with eyesight – this is a vision-related problem and can be overcome.”

Nettl said people were born with eyesight but vision was a skill that must be developed.

“Parents and teachers need to be aware of children’s visual abilities and eye-care needs in order to provide an excellent education programme.

“Since academic learning is 80% visual, vision problems are best detected and treated early.”

Nettl said parents should rather get their children test- ed if they had any concerns.

“Healthy eyes and good vision are essential for success in school.”

Symptoms of vision-related learning problems are:

  • Trouble reading on the blackboard;
  • Trouble completing schoolwork
  • Delayed progress or difficulties in school
  • Eye strain
  • Headaches
  • A short attention span;
  • Copying mistakes in work- books when pupils copy from the blackboard;
  • Children who try to avoid reading;
  • Children who frequently lose their place when they are reading;
  • and Poor handwriting

“My hope is that no child will experience school with an undetected and untreated eye or vision problem,” Nettl said.

But increasing use of technology among children is not only affecting aspects of their development like vision, but other physical and mental factors also come into play.

Dr Ina Diener, president of the South African Society of Physiotherapy, said exercise was especially important for children.

“Free and unstructured play is essential for our children, not only for their physical health but also for their physical and mental development.”

She said the physical boundaries of children’s worlds had shrunk for many reasons, including the perception that public open spaces were unsafe.

“One play expert calls middle-class children the ‘children of imprisonment’, confined to schoolrooms and their homes, stuck behind screens and deprived of contact with the natural world.”

Leave a Reply