Can Too Much Texting Make You Go Blind?

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If the economic meltdown, the disappearance of disposable income and the return of frugality weren't hard enough on consumer electronics companies, it looks like the industry is facing a new problem: Using its products may lead to nearsightedness. Incidents of myopia (also known as nearsightedness) have increased by 66.4% between 1972 and 2004, according to a study published in this month's Archives of Opthalmology. Some researchers suggest the rise may be linked to increased texting, Web-surfing, game playing and similar pursuits.
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In theory, it works like this: as children read books, surf the net, write text messages and perform other "near work" activities that require their eyes to focus on short distances, they may actually trigger an elongation in their eyeballs. This, in turn, would make it harder for their eyes to refocus. In theory, the solution would be for children to drop the iPod and pick up a baseball. Spending more time on activities that stress long distance vision could, presumably, help young eyeballs to develop more evenly.

"A characteristic feature of the past 10 years is the expanding use of computers for many purposes," says an August 2005 study in Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science that saw a similar spike in myopia among Israeli children. "The utilization of computers in everyday life has been a significant factor in the prevalence of myopia among children."

The latest study's primary author, Susan Vitale, works with the National Institute of Health's National Eye Institute. She and her coauthors compared data from the 1971-1972 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) with data from the 1999-2004 NHANES. Both studies tested participants between the ages of 12 and 54, and the 1999 study used the same diagnosis techniques as the earlier survey.

I wanted this study and the ensuing analysis to be untrue. Despite hundreds of warnings that I was going to go blind, I spent much of my childhood with my nose stuck in a book. As an adult, I took heart in various studies that showed that myopia was almost entirely a matter of heredity and had little or nothing to do with environment. After all, if my terrible eyesight was the result of my severely myopic parents, then I need not regret the hours that I spent under my covers with a flashlight.

Well, it looks like my flashlight may have a lot to do with my current terrible eyesight. Admittedly, Vitale's data -- like previous surveys -- suggested that heredity (or at least ethnicity) plays a part in incidents of myopia: 43% of white participants and 33.5% of black participants were myopic in the 1999-2004 study. However, both groups had massive jumps in incidents of myopia between the seventies and the nineties. In fact, while incidents of myopia jumped by 63.5% among white participants, incidents of myopia among black participants more than doubled.

Numerous factors -- including the increased use of fluorescent lights or massive dietary changes -- might have contributed to the changes that the study identified. Although Vitale and her coauthors offered only limited speculation about what has caused the increase in myopia, their study notes that the 1999 participants were 25.7% to 59.8% more likely to have at least 12 years of formal education. Of course, more education translates into more time reading, writing, and doing arithmetic, which further supports the "near work" hypothesis.

While Vitale's study -- and the near work hypothesis -- will undoubtedly be challenged, it offers compelling evidence that the consumer electronics revolution may come with a high price.

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