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More Youths Setting Sights on Contacts

Posted October 29, 2007

As an 11-year-old athlete, Cameron Burrows hated wearing eyeglasses. Although it was difficult to see the ball, he often went to games without his glasses because they caused such a problem when he was playing sports.

So when Cameron asked his mother, Michelle, for contact lenses, it came as no surprise. Although Cameron was young, Michelle knew he wouldn’t wear the glasses and his eyesight was suffering, so she decided to let him try contacts.

“He was a pretty responsible kid and pretty good at maintaining his stuff, so we got him the cheap ones to try,” she says. “It made a big difference with his sports.”

Cameron is one of many youngsters contributing to the trend of early contact lens use. A recent study conducted at Ohio State University suggested that, while contacts used to be seen as a right of passage for older teens, 8- to 11-year-olds are just as capable of handling the responsibility, and many are taking advantage of it. In the study, which involved fitting nearsighted children ages 8-11 with one-day disposable lenses, 90 percent had no trouble inserting or removing the contacts without assistance.

Dr. Joan Roberts, a specialist in pediatric ophthalmology at North Carolina Eye, Ear, Nose & Throat, says she usually waits until her patients are 12 before allowing them to use contacts because that is when most children are mature enough to handle the maintenance and decision-making involved. But she says occasionally a younger patient will prove ready for the responsibility.

“We have several younger athletes who use them,” she says. “Those children are typically more responsible. Maturity is really the main thing.”

Roberts and her colleagues prescribe contact lenses only when their patients prove they are able to clean, maintain, insert and remove the lenses properly. The doctors at the practice also make each patient and his or her parent sign an informed consent form upon receiving the prescription, agreeing that the lenses will be used properly.

“We make sure they can follow certain guidelines like washing their hands before handling the lenses, not sharing with friends and not sleeping in them,” she says. “We make sure they understand the importance of that. We tell them what happens if they don’t take care of them, too, and most children, when you explain the risks, they respect that.”

While Cameron and other children like him get contacts to help their vision while playing sports, other children desire contacts for social reasons.

Jane Geohrke, 15, says she initially wanted contacts at age 9 because she didn’t like the way she looked in glasses. "I got my glasses in third grade, and not many other people had them,” she says. “I didn’t want to look different.”

Jane’s mother, Jackie, says that, although her daughter was self-conscious from the beginning, she thought it would be best to wait until Jane was in fifth grade before letting her try contacts. She says she was pleasantly surprised when her 11-year-old was able to take care of her lenses without much assistance.

“I think just because she wanted them so badly she was willing to do whatever it took,” Jackie says.

Four years later, Jane is an everyday contact lens wearer and says she “can’t even feel them anymore.”

Her mom says that, although Jane was never a shy kid, she thinks the contact lenses helped with her self-confidence. “I don’t think that the glasses were a big impediment, but I think once she got the contacts she certainly felt better about her appearance,” Jackie says.

Young patients and their parents ask about contact lenses frequently, according to Roberts. She says when parents think their kids are ready and the kids can prove it, she usually prescribes soft daily lenses that her young patients can change every two weeks, because these types of lenses are easier to maintain and are cost-effective.

Roberts says doctors have the ultimate responsibility when writing a contact lens prescription and will allow patients to keep them only if they use and care for them correctly. To ensure patients can adequately maintain their lenses, most doctors make patients practice putting their lenses in and taking them back out at the doctor’s office. They also will typically go through a training session so that kids understand the risks and responsibilities associated with contacts.

To help determine when your child is ready for contact lenses, Roberts suggests meeting with your ophthalmologist to discuss the child’s maturity level. There also are various online resources, such as www.contactlenses.org, www.allaboutvision.com and www.aoa.org, which offer tips for kids, answers to frequently asked questions and advice for parents.

Michelle Burrows said her best advice to parents is to make sure their kids know that wearing contacts is a big responsibility and that it will be frustrating at first.

“They need to know that it doesn’t just start instantaneously. They need to be persistent and stick with it,” she says. “So when you’re deciding if they’re ready, you need to think about the maturity level of your kid, and make sure they can handle it.”

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