With much of the globe now under coronavirus-related restrictions, we have never been so tethered to our screens – for work, to connect with friends, to unwind or to distract ourselves.
One new estimate suggested that adults are spending more than 13 hours a day using screens, a spike up from 10 hours a day a year ago.
With children cut off from physically attending school, they are more reliant on laptops and tablets for online lessons and entertainment.
And with our new routines likely to have a lot more screen time for the foreseeable future, experts say it’s important to learn how to protect our eyes from suffering as a result.
While there is no evidence of long-term eye damage from extended use of smartphones, computer screens or other devices, prolonged use can sometimes lead to blurred vision, eye fatigue, dry or irritated eyes and headaches, according to Moorfield Eye Hospital in London.
Dr. Raj Maturi, the clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology and a retina specialist, called these symptoms “digital vision syndrome.”
He, along with the doctors at the Moorfield Eye Hospital, recommended a 20-20-20 approach — for every 20 minutes spent at a screen you must take a break and look 20 feet in front of you for 20 seconds.
“When you are looking at a close target, your eyes are just training that one muscle at all time, and looking into the distance can relieve it,” he said.
Don’t forget to blink
While it’s close work, rather than screen use per se, that strains our eyes. Dr Maturi said that looking at bright devices can make us blink less, which leaves our eyes feeling dry.
“When things are bright, we blink less. It’s behavioral. So we can train ourselves to blink more often and blink fully,” he said.
If you’re already suffering from dry eyes, he recommended the use of artificial tears. Moorfields Eye Hospital also suggested using a humidifier, as well as making sure your work station is set up correctly.
The top of your computer screen should be in line with your eyes and about 18 to 30 inches from where you’re sitting and tilted back slightly, the hospital said in a blog post in April.
Dr. Rachel Bishop, a spokesperson for the National Eye Institute, agreed that where your screen is positioned is important.
“If you are looking down, then your eyelid is shut a bit and you’re not having as much evaporation – which can help prevent dry eyes. If you’re looking up high, your eye dries much quicker,” she said.
Other steps you can take include dimming the surrounding lights so that the screen is brighter in comparison and cleaning your computer screen regularly to avoid dust buildup, which can obscure the screen and cause eye irritation.
If you or your children continue to have vision problems after making these fixes, experts recommended seeking advice from an ophthalmologist or optician as it could be a sign of an uncorrected eye problem like long-sightedness or astigmatism.
If you’re older than your late 30s and unable to see an eye care professional because of lockdown restrictions, there would be no harm in buying a cheap pair of drugstore reading glasses and seeing if they help, said Bishop.
“The focusing muscle in your eye changes as you age. You can focus up close when you’re 20 for hours at a time and have no problems. But that ability declines as you age,” said Dr Bishop.
“For people who aren’t eager to have a medical appointment, the first thing is to try on some low-strength, over-the-counter reading glasses. Hold up something to read and pick the lowest number you can comfortably read at the distance you like to work,” she said.
Another potential concern is the “blue light” that digital devices emit, but Dr. Maturi said this affects our body clock, rather than our vision. But it’s something worth paying attention to – especially for kids who can get overstimulated easily.
“When we go outside we look at a blue sky, that’s blue light,” he said. “The issue with blue light is at night. It can delay your ability to sleep quickly,” he said.
He suggested that people turn their devices to night mode or use e-readers with screens that more closely resemble a physical book. The key was to look at how many nits a display had – a measurement of luminance or brightness, he added.
To protect kids’ eyes, parents should encourage them to spend as much time outside as possible – within restrictions that are in place where you live to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
The past two decades have seen a massive increase in myopia or short-sightedness among children – and while scientists can’t agree on exactly what has caused this rise and whether there’s any link to screen use, they do know that spending time outdoors, especially in early childhood, can slow its progression.
“We should know more in a few years when research comes up with more answers, but for parents they have a dilemma because the school is now brought into the screen and kids social engagement are now brought into the screen and kids are playing their games on a screen,” said Bishop.
Is all this screen time damaging my eyes?
(Yes. But here’s what to do)
Digital media has emerged as a hero in the covid-19 pandemic, since it’s making remote work possible and social media platforms now provide a lifeline to those of us who feel isolated. But if you do both, as I do, that’s a lot of screen time, even before I start streaming The Plot Against America (must-watch, by the way). Since I’m already nearsighted, I wondered if this lockdown was going to do permanent damage.
I asked Dr. Ritesh Patel, Optometrist at Toronto’s See and Be Seen Eyecare , for a little advice, starting with some straight talk about how much screen time is too much. Apparently, anything over two or three hours is considered too much. Whoops.
“Whether that’s realistic or not is a different story,” says Patel. “So for people spending more time in front of screens, we try to recommend something called 20-20-20, which means that every 20 minutes you should give your eyes a 20-second break by looking 20 feet away, which allows you to refocus your eyes.”
And, thanks to the hand-washing regimen we’ve all recently learned, we should know how long 20 seconds really is—two Happy Birthday songs; the break from “Kiss Off” by the Violent Femmes, or the chorus to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” Your choice.
Taking a 20-second breather to look out the window may not seem like the most important part of our new regimen that sees us take measures to avoid the novel coronavirus, avoid transmitting it to others, quell the rising tides of anxiety and find some way to stay physically active in our small spaces, but protecting our vision is an important piece too. It’s more than just the worry that we’ll all be getting new prescriptions, since too much blue UV light, which is emitted from our screens, can cause other problems.
“The devices can cause strain on your eyes, fatigue and, potentially, headaches but they also impact other things such as sleeping patterns,” Patel explains. “So, if you’re using your phone before you go to sleep, your brain is tricked into thinking it’s daytime instead of night time so your sleeping patterns are, of course, impacted as well which has an effect on cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure. It’s a bigger picture and a systemic issue as well.”
Patel advises cutting off the screens two hours before bed. I asked him if that included Netflix and, sadly, it does. Although he did say that, if the TV was far away, it was at least less damaging than staring right into tablets and laptops close-up.
And that principle can also guide us to design vision-friendly home office set-ups. Casting your work to a TV a few feet away is an improvement over working on a desktop or laptop, which, aside from producing eye strain, can also interfere with our normal blinking patterns.
“We don’t realize this but, as soon as we get in front of a screen and get into our zone, we blink a lot less,” Patel says. “Instead of blinking every two to three seconds, you start blinking every four to five seconds and that’s a significant decrease.”
Reduced blinking can make our eyes feel dry, itchy, sensitive to light, red and even lead to more bacteria getting stuck in the eyes, which could lead to infections. He recommends “blinking exercises,” which involve closing your eyes for five seconds and then again for 10 seconds at regular intervals throughout the day.
“I kind of equate it to yoga, how you become conscious about your breathing and realize you take a lot of shallow breaths in your everyday life,” he says. “Breathing and blinking kind of go hand-in-hand, because you don’t think about it, they just happened literally 10,000 times per day, but it feels good to take a deep breath or close your eyes for a break and give your eyes the moisture levels they need.”
Patel recommends looking into technological solutions as well. Many phones and tablets have something in their settings called “Night Shift,” which reduces the brightness of the light and Patel advises leaving that on all the time—not just at night. There’s also software available to filter out the blue light, such as f.lux. And there are plenty of apps to nudge you to do the 20-20-20 thing and take frequent breaks, since some of us will inevitably forget to look away from the screen if we get really engrossed in our work. And “Screen Time,” itself, which tells you how much time you’ve spent on any given device is helpful, too.
Says Patel: “It definitely boils down to awareness, right? If you’re not even aware of the fact that this is an excessive amount of time spent on the computer, then it’s not even going to cross your mind. But if you have a timer that tells you it’s time to take a break now, you might do it.”