Vision is not only crucial for children’s physical, cognitive, and social development, it can continue to affect health and happiness all through adulthood. A recent report about children’s vision and eye health revealed that more than one in five preschool-age children have a vision disorder, which can range from mild refractive errors (i.e. myopia—nearsightedness, hyperopia—farsightedness, astigmatism) to vision loss. While there is a lot being done to ensure a nationally-recognized system to promote eye health, it’s important to build awareness around the genetic and environmental factors that play a role in visual disorders.
Margaret S. Livingstone, Ph.D., is a neurobiology professor at Harvard Medical School and a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. Since August is Children’s Eye Health and Safety Month (sponsored by Prevent Blindness America), we decided to check in with Dr. Livingstone, a vision expert.
Livingstone has done extensive work with primates and is the author of the book Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing.
When asked about tips for maintaining optimal vision, Livingstone referenced research by Torsten Wiesel and Elio Raviola on myopia (nearsightedness) in monkeys. “You shouldn’t overcorrect myopia. Kids who do a lot of close work will become myopic and if you keep correcting them they’ll get more and more myopic. My kids didn’t ever wear glasses when they read even though they were both slightly nearsighted. They are still slightly nearsighted but they are not profoundly nearsighted like I am.”
There is a growing concern over the amount of time kids spend in front of screens—playing videogames, on the computer, watching television—and whether this could cause nearsightedness. There is debate over the effects of such behavior, but Livingstone sides with the conclusion of a 1996 study that found close exposure to various screens (e.g. sitting too close to the TV) is no different than other forms of “near work.” These activities “will certainly rearrange the way their brains are organized,” Livingstone said. “But so does everything we have intensive early experience with. It’s not harmful, it’s just different.”