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Little-known iPhone feature might help quell myopia

Myopia is becoming a global concern and it can lead to more serious eye issues.

Myopia is becoming a global concern and it can lead to more serious eye issues. Photo: Getty

Myopia is on the rise among Australians, and there’s a little-known iPhone feature that might help quell the problem.

With iOS17, Apple introduced Screen Distance, a setting that encourages people to move their iPhone further away if the TrueDepth camera detects a device is being held closer than 30 centimetres to the face for an extended period of time.

Apple says viewing a device or a book too closely for an extended period can lead to increased eye strain or the risk of developing myopia, which is also known as short-sightedness.

The eye condition causes distant objects to appear blurred.

Screen Distance can help children engage in healthy viewing habits that can lower their risk of myopia and can give people of all ages the opportunity to reduce digital eye strain,” Apple said.

The feature can be turned on in “Settings”, under “Screen Time”.

But optometrist and Optometry Australia media liaison Luke Arundel told TND that myopia was on the rise long before screens became a daily part of our lives.

One of the first signs linking lifestyle and environment factors with myopia came in 1969, when a study examined the changing lifestyles of Inuit people in Alaska.

“Of adults who had grown up in isolated communities, less than 1 per cent had myopia,” Arundel said.

“But more than half of their children and grandchildren had the condition as schools were introduced [and their lifestyles and viewing habits changed along with spending more time inside].”

The ‘looming public health crisis’

Myopia is short-sightedness and it can make objects in the distance blurry or hard to see, Arundel said.

“Worldwide it has been labelled an upcoming epidemic and a looming public health crisis with over half the world’s population estimated to be myopic by the year 2050,” he said.

Myopia has risen from 20 per cent to 30 per cent in 17-year-old Australians in the past 15 years. Elsewhere the figures can be even higher – in Taiwan, for example, 97 per cent of teenagers are myopic.

Cropped image of female optometrist checking boy's eyes at clinic

Myopia is becoming more prevalent among young people. Photo: Getty

“Researchers think that it’s environmental factors that are driving this increase worldwide, especially in countries where children don’t spend as much time outside as they do in Australia,” Arundel said.

Children who spend a lot of time focusing on near objects, for example, reading or using screens, may also have a greater chance of becoming myopic. 

“The earlier myopia starts, the more likely it is that it will progress to high myopia, where there are increased risks of permanent vision loss through glaucoma, cataract and problems with the retina, which is the sensor layer at the back of the eye,” Arundel said.

How to best protect your eyes

The good news is there are a few simple steps that can help prevent further eye damage, or prevent children from becoming myopic.

Arundel said some researchers believed ensuring children spent at least two hours outside every day could prevent them from developing myopia.

There’s also the 20-20 rule people should try to follow, especially if they are staring at a screen all day.

Every 20 minutes we need to look up at something in the distance for 20 seconds to give those poor old eye muscles a chance to rest,” Arundel said, adding he sets a timer to remind himself.

For those without an iPhone, or an older one that doesn’t support iOS17, Arundel suggested the “elbow rule”.

“Simply to tell kids to make a fist, pop the fist on their chin and make sure they don’t hold the screen closer than their elbow away,” he said.

It’s also important to have regular eye checks to pick up on myopia in its early stages, or get treatment to slow its progression.

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