If your eyes are feeling dry, irritated, tired, and out of focus right now, you aren’t alone.
These symptoms, along with head, neck, and back pain, afflict people who suffer from a malaise unique to our modern era, “digital eye strain,” which nearly 95% of Americans are at risk for and more than 60% experience, according to a new report released Jan. 7 by The Vision Council.
The culprit for these eye issues — uncomfortable in the short term and potentially dangerous in the long term — is the amount of time we all spend staring at screens and the effect that the blue light those screen emit has on our eyes.
It doesn’t take that much time to start causing these problems either. More than two hours in front of a screen can lead to eye strain issues. The Vision Council surveyed 9,749 representative US residents to see how much time we spend in front of screens and how it affects us, and they found that we stare at screens all the time.
Between TVs, computers, smartphones, tablets, and other devices, the report found that approximately 30% of adults spend nine hours a day looking at screens, more than 60% spend more than five hours a day looking at screens, and close to 95% spend more than two hours a day with their eyes bathed in the blue light that these devices emit.
About 25% of children spend more than three hours a day in front of screens. They may be even more at risk of eye damage from the long term effects of this time.
The screens in our electronic devices emit blue light because it’s so bright, making it visible whether you are in a dark room or even outside in the sun.
But constantly staring at this light (and constantly staring at something the same distance away all day) strains your eyes, an effect also known as computer vision syndrome. We can all confirm the obvious immediate problems caused by this, including dryness, itchiness, and the fuzzy feeling that leaves you rubbing your eyes at the end of the day.
But we’re just starting to learn about the long term effects of blue light exposure, and these, which still need to be studied more, are scarier.
Blue light reaches far into the retina, which can eventually cause damage and vision problems — all light can do this, but as some of the brightest light we’re exposed to, blue light is responsible for a greater share of problems.
There’s also some research that indicates that continuous absorption of blue light over long periods of time — especially with larger than normal doses from screen time — could potentially cause damage that leads to macular degeneration and cataracts.
Unfortunately, for many of us there’s no avoiding screens and light — lots of jobs would be hard if not impossible without a computer and smartphone, and who doesn’t want to kick back to watch some Netflix at the end of the day?
But there are some things we can do to reduce the effects of eye strain.
Here are a few, recommended by medical experts at the Vision Council and in medical reviews on the topic:
- Blink. When we stare at screens, we forget to blink, which dries out our eyes. It’s hard to remember, but trying to make sure you keep blinking can help.
- Increase the size of text when needed. Staring at small text can make you squint and put your face closer to a screen, leading to fatigue and headaches, among other issues — so boost text size and colour contrast to make things easier to read.
- The 20-20-20 rule: After 20 minutes of work, take 20 seconds to look at something 20 feet away. Your eyes have muscles that help them move and focus on different objects, but if we stare at a screen the same distance away for hours at a time, those muscles have a hard time adjusting once we move again. This is what can cause that end of the day fuzziness — prevent it by looking around every so often.
- Limit blue light exposure in the first place. This can be a tough one, but there are a few things that can help. Simply taking breaks from the screen is useful, by scheduling meetings or organising some of your work so that it can be done on paper. In some cases, anti-glare filters, computer glasses, and apps that block some blue light can help as well.
While there are limits on what we can do to prevent eye problems caused by our use of personal electronic devices, it’s worth making an effort to try and prevent these problems while we can, especially while we are still researching their long term effects.
Now if you’ll pardon me, I’m going to go look out the window.