When I was a youngster, it wasn’t considered healthy for children to been seen constantly reading. “Too much time with your nose stuck in a book,” was a reprimand. “Out playing in the fresh air you should be!” The “bookworm”, in cartoon images, was the swotty kid with bottle glasses at home alone. “Specky-four-eyes,” was a common taunt. That was a while ago, but a recent, excellent article by Emily Hourican in this newspaper brought back an echo of those values. More children, eye experts are saying, should be out in the fresh air. Kids are spending way too much time reading on screens and this is having a deleterious effect on their eyes. Myopia — short-sightedness — is increasing at an alarming rate. Globally, a million more people are diagnosed as myopic every week.
The earlier the condition is identified, the more serious it is likely to become. And it is probable that more children are at risk of developing myopia because they are so often glued to a screen. Lockdown has increased screen time even more — screen study at home becoming the norm.
Reading anything close to the eye increases the likelihood of myopia, Emily Hourican reported, because the eye-muscles become adapted to this close-distance practice.
This takes me back to my childhood habit of reading secretly, in very inadequate light. Another rule of child-rearing back in the day referred to specific bedtimes. You were packed off to bed at around 7.30pm and expected to be tucked up by lights-out at eight. But I discovered that I could read by the distant flicker of a light on the landing, if I lay at the end of the bed. And every night, I did this, reading for more than an hour in semi-darkness. Subsequently, at boarding school, I sometimes read by torchlight, under the blankets.
My sight began to deteriorate around the age of 12, when I couldn’t see the blackboard, or even the distance of a hockey-ball. My mother was appalled when I was diagnosed as myopic. “But nobody in our family has ever worn glasses!” Worse was to come. “Now, you’ll never get a husband!” Ma lamented.
She must have been influenced by Dorothy Parker’s biting little couplet: “Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses.” This reflected a prejudice against women in specs. There was a clichéd moment in old movies where the hero removes the specs from his earnest-looking colleague, exclaiming, “Why, Miss Smith, you’re beautiful!” He didn’t “see” her behind her glasses.
Film stars themselves often hid the fact that they needed corrective glasses. Grace Kelly was short-sighted but was reluctant to be seen wearing them in public, until later life. (Contact lenses came along in the 1960s but the hard-lens, early versions weren’t very comfortable and required a fussy procedure of sterilisation. Women taking the contraceptive pill also found their eyes were drier, so contact lens could be even more irritable.)
There were some jobs barred to people who wore glasses — you couldn’t be an air stewardess in specs. Marie Stopes, the birth control pioneer, regarded glasses as a sign of being “dysgenic” — having feeble genes.
However, these prejudices passed, greatly helped, I think, by the celebrity Greek singer Nana Mouskouri, who always appeared in concert looking glamorous in big specs. The negative view of the be-spectacled decreased, rightly. Specs are a wonderful corrective to impaired vision and we should be grateful they’ve been invented, and constantly improved.
But it’s the more serious issues that can be associated with myopia — especially in children — that should be in focus.
Myopia can be linked, in later life, to glaucoma, cataracts, detached retinas and macular degeneration, and eventually, loss of vision and blindness. Both Eamon de Valera and James Joyce are examples of myopic men who eventually became blind. De Valera had multiple eye operations in Switzerland to try to save his sight, but in his last years as president he was, in effect, blind.
Joyce was losing his sight by the time Ulysses was published. Artists like Monet and Degas suffered from short-sightedness — though Impressionism might be said to have benefited from the soft contours of colour rendered by partially-sighted painters.
Whether these myopic conditions were innate, or whether they were worsened by the strain on the eye, of holding the text, (or the canvas) exceptionally close, we don’t really know. But we do know that reading in bad light or stressing the eyes with too much screen time can be damaging. Parents are right to be concerned about this.
I’ve been short-sighted since adolescence, and in recent years, I’ve struggled with problems associated with eyesight, including cataracts, macular bleeds, optical headaches, sensitivity to light and eye strain, and there have been constant visits to the eye hospital. I’m grateful we live in an age where so much can be improved and corrected, but I wonder, all the same, if all that secret close-text reading in childhood contributed to my fading vision.