Technology and the Silent Pandemic

Introduction: A review piece in this week’s Nature provides a sobering picture. As usual, SF² Concatenation’s Jonathan Cowie has gotten a tad worried…

By Jonathan Cowie: In SF we are always bigging up the benefits of technology. The counter SF trope to this is technology running amok (as in Terminator) or abused (as in Nineteen Eighty-Four and recent Worldcon publication policies) but what if things were more insidious? One thing the 21st century has seen is the wide use (almost to the point of overly chronic use) of the internet. Here, it is not so much the information (fake news etc.) that is the concern but the way we use it: the very act of surfing the internet. Very often it is accessed on small screens, and here the past one-and-a-half decades has seen the dramatic rise of the smartphone.

All well and good, but what has this to do with a “silent pandemic’? Well, rates of myopia (short-sightedness) have been steadily increasing and it is not welcome news. Study after study show this. And the CoVID-19 pandemic itself has not helped. One study from Hong Kong has shown a near doubling of myopia among six-year olds above pre-pandemic levels (research here).

One academic paper widely circulated among ophthalmologists suggests that this century will see a rise in incidence of myopia to around half the world’s population by 2050 (research here). Some others say that the situation is worse!

So what to do? Studies have suggested that less screen time and more outdoors time for children would help (research here and here).

Children are particularly prone to myopia since the eye grows as we grow and if it is more used to looking at very short distances it will grow accordingly and out of shape. This should not be much of a surprise as we evolved over many millennia outdoors: who knew?

Of course, getting children to spend less time on-screen and more time outdoors is difficult despite being outdoors having other benefits, such as: healthy physical activity, human social contact and other well-being benefits. But even so, it is a challenge. So, some researchers are bringing the outside indoors suggesting bright lighting, well-illuminated blackboards and classroom walls depicting outdoor scenes and the ceilings the sky (research here).

Other research looks at shining light into children’s eyes. One study looks at three-minute red light laser sessions twice a day: a routine analogous to brushing your teeth twice a day. The idea is that this stimulates eyes’ blood circulation (research here). However, it has to be said that there is considerable debate as to what frequencies of light to use. (And even one incidence of harm for a 12-year old girl (research here).)

So, while there is much benefit to the internet and screen time, do try to limit your online time and focus on those really useful websites (such as the daily File770, the monthly Ansible and the seasonal Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation (other worthy SF sites are around)).

Meanwhile, (especially your kids) keep watching the skies: it’ll help stave off myopia… (Let alone warn us of ‘the Thing’, as who knows who goes there?)

Without all the SFnal references and even more science, the full Nature piece is here. A separate but related article is here

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