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How our tech habits are causing our eyes to elongate, which causes myopia

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Going nearsighted is a normal part of aging, but not a normal part of growing up, which is why so many people are concerned about rates of myopia soaring among children. In China, where they track early onset myopia, 80% of teens and young adults are now nearsighted. As part of NPR's special series Body Electric, TED Radio Hour host Manoush Zomorodi has been looking into why so many kids are going nearsighted earlier and earlier and what can be done about it. Manoush, so tell us, what is going on with our eyeballs, or should I say our kids' eyes?

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, BYLINE: OK. So, A, our series is looking at how different parts of our body are adapting to how we use our technology, and our vision is definitely being impacted. I talked to Maria Liu, an associate professor at UC Berkeley School of Optometry, and she says that for a long time, experts believed myopia was purely genetic. But in her lab, she found that what mammals - including us humans - do early in our lives can make us go nearsighted. So if kids are constantly looking at things very close up, their eyes will physically elongate in order to adapt to their environment.

MARTÍNEZ: Yikes. So looking at screens, you'll go nearsighted.

ZOMORODI: Well, yes. But it's really a double whammy. When you're looking at a screen all the time, that means you're also not spending time outside, Maria says.

MARIA LIU: So if we indulge our vision into a very closed-up world, spending too much time doing reading or using electronic devices, spending too little time outdoors, the visual system will think, OK, now the ideal endpoint is not to be able to see things clearly at far.

ZOMORODI: And, A, the World Health Organization predicts that by 2030, 40% of the world's population will be nearsighted. And the earlier myopia starts, the more likely it can lead to problems like cataracts, glaucoma, and even vision loss. And that is why Maria Liu opened the first myopia control clinic at UC Berkeley Eye Center a decade ago, even though at the time, her colleagues did not believe that optometrists could slow the progression of myopia in kids.

MARTÍNEZ: So you don't just get a kid fitted for glasses, then? I mean, so what are the treatments here?

ZOMORODI: Yeah. So there are special drops and special lenses. We talked to one patient, a 12-year-old named Harmony, and she doesn't have to wear glasses anymore because for the last 2 1/2 years, she's been wearing special contact lenses while she sleeps. And they are gently reshaping her eyeballs back to the spherical shape that they should be.

HARMONY: My vision started getting better after, like, a week, so I think my vision went from pretty blurry, couldn't see distant objects to really sharp, and color was clearer, especially in farther areas. So I can, like, actually see things without having really thick glasses on my nose.

MARTÍNEZ: Which is what I have, really thick glasses on my nose. And I - wow, reshaping her eyeballs, too. I mean, is there anything we should be doing on a daily basis, both grownups and kids?

ZOMORODI: Yes. It's very simple, Maria says. Make time to go outside and scan the horizon, especially after you've been sitting and looking at a screen for a long time. And parents, just make sure your kids are getting plenty of time to play outside. It is good for their eyes.

MARTÍNEZ: As soon as we're done, I'm going to go outside and just stare off into the distance. How about that?

ZOMORODI: Perfect.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Manoush Zomorodi, host of NPR's TED Radio Hour and also special series Body Electric. You can catch new episodes every Tuesday in the TED Radio Hour podcast feed or at npr.org/bodyelectric. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Manoush Zomorodi is the host of TED Radio Hour. She is a journalist, podcaster and media entrepreneur, and her work reflects her passion for investigating how technology and business are transforming humanity.