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Feature: Is too Much Study Indoors Destroying Students’ Vision?

Where you attend university haunts you for the rest of your life.

- Lee Beom, Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education.

I appreciate that quote. I really do. I acknowledge my privilege of waltzing into comfortable ESL teaching jobs in Korea, whatever my university, not to mention the option—and plan—to move my family overseas well before my children attend high school.

For parents that lack those luxuries, however, most send their children to hagwons (cram schools) for extra study. There are many sensible reasons to do so, including much-needed childcare (Korea has notoriously long working hours) and the fact that public school teachers frequently leave it to their hagwon counterparts to teach some of the syllabus.

Yet many hagwons are open extremely late, too, which deprives children of sleep. At one large chain I taught at, for instance, the 13-year-old students finished as late as 10:30 p.m. and still had to take a trip home, eat dinner and do their school homework before they could go to bed. What’s more, high school students didn’t finish until well after midnight.

No wonder that a September 2011 study in JAMA Pediatrics found that Korean teens only get an average of five hours and 42 minutes sleep on weekdays (nine hours are recommended), or that they frequently had difficulties concentrating at school.

Data on male conscripts in the Singaporean army, for instance, shows that in the 1970s, only one in four Singaporean children finishing high school had myopia, whereas now the figure matches Korea’s 90 percent.

With a 10:00 p.m.-curfew on hagwons by the Seoul City Government failing through widespread violations and parental opposition in 2011, though, it’s going to take quite a shock to change Korean parents’ mindsets.

Hopefully, the recent news that all that indoor-time is turning their children blind will provide exactly that.

Two caveats: first, technically they’re only turning myopic (or short-sighted), which occurs when the eyeball is too long, so the focus of light entering them falls short of the back of the retina, requiring eyewear to correct it. But, according to Dr. Ian Morgan of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence in Vision Science, as many as nine in 10 students of high myopia regions of Asia—like Korea—have this problem (compared to only two or three in the UK), with two in 10 having a roughly 50/50 chance of indeed becoming completely blind by middle age.

Second, the problem itself is not news at all. Data on male conscripts in the Singaporean army, for instance, shows that in the 1970s, only one in four Singaporean children finishing high school had myopia, whereas now the figure matches Korea’s 90 percent.

This is an extraordinary rise that has led to a great deal of research in order to determine the source of the problem. Previously studies focused on possible genetic factors, and/or children doing an excessive amount of near work activity, which includes poring over their textbooks at hagwons.

However, the former approach was always misguided, as genetic susceptibility doesn’t suddenly emerge in a population in just two generations, and Singaporean children show equal rates of myopia regardless of whether they’re of Chinese, Indian or Malaysian heritage. Also, while the latter approach was more promising, among those countries sharing Korea’s education mania, isolating the exact mechanism proved elusive.

But, as first reported in 2009, what is news is that a study led by Dr. Morgan demolished both explanations. Instead, it’s a lack of exposure to sunlight that is proving to be the primary cause.

In brief, the researchers compared myopia rates of six-year-old Chinese kids living in Sydney and Singapore, finding contrasting rates of three and 30 percent, respectively. As I wrote of the study in the Korea Times:

That there was any difference undermines a genetic explanation, but whereas most people might have expected it to be accounted for by the latter’s greater amount of near work activity, to researchers’ surprise in fact Sydney children did more, which suggested that the myopia must be triggered by some other environmental factor. Eliminating all other variables, the critical factor appeared to be that Sydney children were spending far more time outdoors. To be precise, 13-14 hours a week compared to 3 or 4.

Specifically, they believe that a chemical called dopamine is responsible—light increases its levels in the eye, which in turn prevents it from lengthening. Not completely, of course; as we get older and work more with tools, books and computers, we naturally become shorter-sighted as our eyeballs lengthen to compensate. But without sunlight, our eyes overcompensate.

This is in the news again this year, as it has been confirmed by three recent studies.

The first was by a University of Ulster team that compared Caucasian children in the UK and Australia, finding the former more likely to be myopic; the second, by Taiwanese researchers at Kaoshing Chang Jung Memorial Hospital, who found that students who were forced to spend their breaks outdoors had significantly fewer problems with their eyesight than a control group who stayed indoors.

Finally, researchers at Sun-Yat-sen university in China looked at 2005 data on Danish children, and found that the eyes of children least exposed to light grew 0.07 mm more than those most exposed.

Caveats remain. It is true that simply studying itself puts stress on the eyes (let alone sleep-deprivation), and that rates are also increasing outside of Asia—since the 1970s, rates of myopia in the general population have increased by 65 percent in the US for instance. Dr. Morgan stresses that more research is needed.

However, not only is the solution obvious, but it’s not only students in sunny Australia and Singapore that can benefit. As Dr. Morgan explained to the BBC last month:

‘We’re talking about the need for two to three hours a day of outdoor light—it doesn’t have to be massively sunny, we think the operating range is 10-20,000 lux, we’re not sure about that—but that’s perfectly achievable on a cloudy day in the UK.’

He also pointed out the obvious fact that encouraging—allowing—children to play more outside is unlikely to do them any harm.

So, yesterday as I typed this, I deliberately took my daughters to the playground instead of joining them in another round of lego building; later, I was joined by my neighbor with his son. Here’s hoping that news of Dr. Morgan’s findings means we see more parents and their children there next time.

James Turnbull is a writer and public speaker on Korean feminism, sexuality and pop culture. He can be found at his blog



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