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Are you worried about how the rise in technology is affecting your health? If so, you’re not alone. 

Since the Victorian times, people have been concerned about how new innovations can damage eyesight.

Writing for the Conversation, Gemma Almond, PhD Researcher from Swansea University talks about how the rise of mass print 1800’s, was blamed for an increase in eye ailments and predicted that without proper care and attention, Britain’s population would eventually go blind. 

Misplaced concern: Since Victorian times people have been concerned about how new innovations might damage eyesight -  specifically, mass printing of newspapers and books 

Misplaced concern: Since Victorian times people have been concerned about how new innovations might damage eyesight -  specifically, mass printing of newspapers and books 

Misplaced concern: Since Victorian times people have been concerned about how new innovations might damage eyesight –  specifically, mass printing of newspapers and books 

From concerns over blue light to digital strain and dryness, headlines today often worry how smartphones and computer screens might be affecting the health of our eyes. But while the technology may be new, this concern certainly isn’t. 

Since Victorian times people have been concerned about how new innovations might damage eyesight. 

In the 1800s, the rise of mass print was both blamed for an increase in eye problems and was responsible for dramatising the fallibility of vision too. 

As the amount of known eye problems increased, the Victorians predicted that without appropriate care and attention Britain’s population would become blind. 

In 1884, an article in The Morning Post newspaper proposed that: ‘The culture of the eyes and efforts to improve the faculty of seeing must become matters of attentive consideration and practice, unless the deterioration is to continue and future generations are to grope about the world purblind.’

The 19th century was the time when opthamology became a more prominent field of healthcare. New diagnostic technologies, such as test charts were introduced and spectacles became a more viable treatment method for a range of vision errors. 

But though more sight problems were being treated effectively, this very increase created alarm, and a subsequent perceived need to curtail any growth.

In 1889 the Illustrated London News questioned: ‘To what are we coming? … Now we are informed by men of science that the eyes used so effectively by our forefathers will not suffice for us, and that there is a prospect of England becoming purblind.’ 

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The article continued, considering potential causes for this acceleration, and concluded that it could be partly explained by evolution and inheritance. 

Urban myopia 

Other commentators looked to ‘modern life’ for explanation, and attributed the so-called ‘deterioration of vision’ to the built environment, the rise of print, compulsory education, and a range of new innovations such as steam power. 

In 1892, an article, published in The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review, reflected that the changing space of Victorian towns and lighting conditions were an ‘inestimable benefit’ that needed to be set against a ‘decidedly lower sight average’. Similarly, a number of other newspapers reported on this phenomenon, headlining it as ‘urban myopia’.

Fears stoked: Victorians blamed a 'deterioration of vision' to: the built environment, the rise of print, compulsory education, and a range of new innovations such as steam power

Fears stoked: Victorians blamed a 'deterioration of vision' to: the built environment, the rise of print, compulsory education, and a range of new innovations such as steam power

Fears stoked: Victorians blamed a ‘deterioration of vision’ to: the built environment, the rise of print, compulsory education, and a range of new innovations such as steam power

In 1898, a feature published in The Scottish Review – ironically entitled ‘The Vaunts of Modern Progress’ – proposed that defective eyesight was ‘exclusively the consequence of the present conditions of civilised life’. 

It highlighted that many advances being discussed in the context of ‘progress’ – including material prosperity, expansion of industry and the rise of commerce – had a detrimental effect on the body’s nervous system and visual health. 

Another concern of the time – sedentariness  – was also linked to the rise in eye problems. Better transport links and new leisure activities that required the person to be seated meant people had more time to read. 

Work changed as well, with lower-class jobs moving away from manual labour and the written word thought to have superseded the spoken one. While we now focus on ‘screen time’, newspapers and periodicals emphasised the negative effects of a ‘reading age’ (the spread of the book and popular print).

Education to blame

In a similar manner to today schools were blamed for the problem too. Reading materials, lighting conditions, desk space, and the advent of compulsory education were all linked to the rise in diagnosed conditions. 

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English ophthalmologist Robert Brudenell Carter, in his government-led study, Eyesight in Schools, reached the balanced conclusion that while schooling conditions may be a problem, more statistics were required to fully assess the situation. 

Though Carter did not wish to ‘play the part of an alarmist’, a number of periodicals dramatised their coverage with phrases such as ‘The Evils of Our School System’.

Too much of a good thing? Some experts believe that excessive screen time can re-wire the brain and diminish attention spans, while changing how we process information (stock image)

Too much of a good thing? Some experts believe that excessive screen time can re-wire the brain and diminish attention spans, while changing how we process information (stock image)

Too much of a good thing? Some experts believe that excessive screen time can re-wire the brain and diminish attention spans, while changing how we process information (stock image)

The problem with all of these new environmental conditions was that they were considered ‘artificial’. To emphasise this point, medical men frequently compared their findings of poor eye health against the superior vision of ‘savages’ and the effect of captivity on the vision of animals. 

This in turn gave a more negative interpretation of the relationship between civilisation and ‘progress’, and conclusions were used to support the idea that deteriorating vision was an accompaniment of the urban environment and modern leisure pursuits – specific characteristics of the Western world.

And yet the Victorians were undeterred, and continued with the very modern progress that they blamed for eyesight problems. Instead, new protective eyewear was developed that sought to protect the eye from dust and flying particles, as well as from the bright lights at seaside resorts, and artificial lighting in the home.

Despite their fears, the country did not become ‘purblind’. Neither is Britain now an ‘island full of round-backed, blear-eyed book worms’ as predicted. 

While stories reported today tend to rely on more rigorous research when it comes to screen time and eye health, it just goes to show that ‘modernity’ has long been a cause for concern.

‘STARING AT SMARTPHONES AND TABLETS IS TO BLAME FOR RISE OF DRY EYE DISEASE IN CHILDREN’ 

More children are getting dry eye disease because they spend so much time staring at screens, scientists said in July.

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The condition is more common among older people but is rising in the young because they blink less when looking at screens, so their tears dry up quicker.

So scientists at Aston University in Birmingham are now developing a smartphone app to help diagnose people sooner if they are suffering with dry eyes.

Cause for concern? More children are getting dry eye disease because they spend so much time staring at screens, scientists said in July - but are they correct?

Cause for concern? More children are getting dry eye disease because they spend so much time staring at screens, scientists said in July - but are they correct?

Cause for concern? More children are getting dry eye disease because they spend so much time staring at screens, scientists said in July – but are they correct?

The syndrome occurs when tears in the eyes are not produced properly or evaporate too quickly from the surface of the eyeball.

This causes irritation and discomfort in the eyes, and can lead to blurred vision or more serious problems.

The team’s app is designed to help GPs and pharmacists who don’t often have the correct equipment to diagnose people with the common condition, the creators say.

Every day an eyelid travels the length of a football pitch to spread lubricating tears to provide protection and nutrients for the eyes.

But not everybody’s tears work properly – one in five adults are thought to have dry eyes, which cannot be cured but does not usually have serious consequences.

Professor James Wolffsohn said: ‘Dry eye is traditionally considered an old person’s disease, but we are increasingly seeing it surface in children.

‘This is likely because of prolonged screen use, which makes us blink less and speeds up the rate our tears evaporate.

‘We need to do more to understand the health implications of children glued to smartphones, tablets and game consoles for hours at a time.’ 



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