Ophthalmologists have been warning for an epidemic of near-sightedness, with blindness as a possible result, for a long time. Now, research shows that one quarter of all 13-year olds are near-sighted. The reason? Children spend too little time playing outside and are staring at screens too much. That not only affects your eyes, but your spacial skills as well, the Utrecht-based neuropsychologist Albert Postma observes in response to this news.
In the news: more and more children near-sighted due to screen use
Playing outside is good for your eyes and for your spacial cognition
How you experience the space around you is largely determined by vision, Postma explains: “Even though you can explore your surroundings with your other senses, the visual system is really specialised in this.” The degrading of that system, such as by near-sightedness, affects your ability to find your way in the world.
“With activities such as reading and using screens, we are too absorbed in our peripersonal space: the space directly around your body,” Postma says. It impacts your visual system if you do that for too long, as ophthalmologists are now seeing at the clinic. It’s important that you can observe what is happening further away from your body. “These are the exact surrounding characteristics that you need in order to navigate properly.”
VIRTUAL REALITY VERSUS THE REAL WORLD
Besides the visual aspect, what is the effect on a cognitive level? “That depends on what you do in your peripersonal space. If you're only on social media, you receive a limited input. If you are gaming, that input is bigger: you have to find your way in a virtual environment, which can train your spacial skills. But it's still not the real world.”
So? “Going outside is certainly good for your development. I support that completely. And not just for your visual system, but also for your spacial skills. You have to learn how to move in spaces, and learn to connect visual information to things such as sounds and touch: ‘How far away is that wall from me?’”
HOW TECHNOLOGY CAN ACTUALLY HELP
Postma works with a group of colleagues on a research proposal on navigation during sensory deprivation. “That deprivation can come from the environment or the individual. It's of course more difficult to find your way when it's dark at night, but also if you're blind or visually impaired.” The researchers look at the question of how technological innovation can help people with this.
Postma says: “In Western countries, eye problems stand out less due to medical healthcare. But the numbers still show that the problem is actually growing. That is in part due to ageing and diseases such as diabetes. That it also occurs among children and youngsters was news to me.” This news makes his research even more urgent: “If near-sightedness will be a real problem in the near future, how can we then help children to find their way in the end?”
RESEARCH THEME YOUTH
If you want to tackle social problems, it would be best to start with children. The Utrecht-based research theme Dynamics of Youth invests in a resilient youth. Academics from all fields collaborate in order to learn to better understand child development. How can we help children and youngsters to grow and flourish in our rapidly changing society?