At present, significantly more Americans are working from home than in the past, and the shift in locations may also mean an increase in the time spent in front of a screen. Meetings can no longer take place in person, so many companies are turning to videoconferencing, text, and email for communication that would have taken place face-to-face in the office. On top of this probable increase in screen use, we may find ourselves increasing screen time at home for reasons other than work as well. Many people are using social media platforms to stay connected with loved ones, using texting, email, and videoconferencing for communication, and watching more hours of television or playing more video games due to increased spare time. All of these activities involve staring at a lit screen. 

The problem with screen time is that it can be detrimental to your vision and the overall health of your eyes. In fact, the ocular consequences of too much screen time even have a name: computer vision syndrome (CVS) [1]. CVS includes a range of physical problems and symptoms related to the eyes, and research has shown that more than half of the population of people who work at a computer express symptoms of CVS [2]. Although “computer” is the only device in the name, tablets, phones, and television screens can elicit the same effects. 

Could an increase in screen time affect my eyes?

Just like carpal tunnel syndrome can result from repeating small movements over and over, CVS results from repeating tiny eye movements over and over. Reading words on the screen, glancing back and forth between windows, or following motion in video requires a lot of effort on the part of your eye muscles. Your eyes also work overtime to change focus quickly when you look away from and back to the screen, such as repeatedly glancing down at printed papers or your keyboard while working. On top of all this, screens flicker, sometimes at a rate faster than our brain can register, and give off a glare, which is not an obstacle when reading from paper. 

While it has not been proven that the effects cause permanent damage, the symptoms of CVS (or screen time overload) are blurred or double vision, dry, red eyes, eye irritation, headaches, and neck or back pain. 

Blue light from screen time

Separate of CVS, but adverse nonetheless, are the effects of the blue light from digital screens. Natural light appears white but actually contains red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet light. Every color light has a different energy level and wavelength. Rays on the red end have longer wavelengths and less energy, while blue rays have shorter wavelengths and more energy. LED light that comes off of digital screens is made up of more blue light than other wavelengths. 

On one hand, blue light can benefit your productivity as it boosts alertness, helps memory and cognitive function, and elevates mood [3]. Because of this, when exposure comes mainly during the daytime, blue light can help maintain a healthful circadian rhythm or sleep/wake cycle. Unfortunately, few of us turn off screens as soon as the sun goes down. Too much exposure to blue light at night negatively affects the circadian rhythm, leading to sleep difficulties at night and sleepiness during the day [3].

Blue light can reduce image contrast on a screen contributing to digital eye strain, or CVS [3]. Over an extended period of time, studies have shown that blue light likely causes damage to the retina, and therefore contributes to age-related macular degeneration [3]. We should be especially careful about screens and children. Studies have shown that a child’s eye absorbs more blue light energy from a digital screen than an adult’s [4], suggesting the effects may also be more severe. 

 What steps can I take to protect my eyes?

When it comes to leisure activities and social media scrolling, we can try to reduce our screen time. Try setting a daily social media screen time limit on your phone as a reminder to put it down. Be reticent of the clock and the effects of blue light at night, and try to limit any screen use after dark to maintain a healthy sleep and wake cycle. 

In terms of work, you probably don’t have the option to cut down on screen time. Luckily there are several other steps you can take to support your eye health while working at the computer. 

Wear glasses:

If you know you have imperfect vision, make sure you are wearing the right prescription for working at the computer. Depending on your individual eyesight, your optometrist may tweak your prescription or suggest adding blue light protective lenses to your glasses. Even if you don’t wear glasses otherwise, you may benefit from wearing protective lenses to reduce blue light exposure.

Treat dry eyes:

People actually blink less often when staring at screens, which can contribute to eye dryness and irritation [2]. Try to remember to blink more frequently, re-wetting the cornea. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and ask your healthcare professional about eye drops if you notice excessive dryness.

Supplement with antioxidants:

Vision and eye health are somewhat dependent on the nutrients we consume. Our eyes are particularly concentrated with blood vessels and nerve tissue and are therefore extra susceptible to oxidative damage that can contribute to macular degeneration as we age. Consider adding some antioxidant support to your diet. Lutein and zeaxanthin, specifically, are the two carotenoids found naturally in the macula with antioxidant properties and have been shown to promote macular health [5]. Metabolic Maintenance offers a complete ocular support formula called VitalEyes™ Complete that contains these nutrients, along with several other nutrients that can benefit the health of your eyes and vision.

Adjust the lighting around you:

Do you notice a glare off of your screen from nearby windows? Is the room dark with your screen acting as the only light source? Both of these factors can contribute to eye strain and related symptoms [1]. Make sure you work in a well-lit space and try an anti-glare screen cover if you cannot cover the window or avoid the sun.

Monitor position and quality:

For the least amount of eye strain, a computer monitor should be placed so that the center of the screen is six inches below your straight-ahead gaze. Higher resolution LCD

monitors with a matte finish are the best choice to prevent eye strain, but if you have an older model monitor, try adjusting the settings to the highest refresh rate to minimize flicker [1].

Rest your eyes:

Try following the 20/20/20 rule: after 20 minutes of working at the computer, look into the distance 20 feet away for 20 seconds and allow your eyes to refocus. The American Optometric Association also suggests that you take a 15-minute break after every 2 hours of continuous computer use [1].

Minimize blue light exposure:

Your devices may have a nighttime setting that adjusts the level of blue light emanating from your screen. Some even have a setting to make the switch automatically at certain hours of night and day. Again, reducing your overall screen use is the best method for reducing the damage that may be taking place in response to light exposure.

References

  1. Barthakur, Rimli. “Computer vision syndrome.” Internet Journal of Medical Update 8.2 (2013): 1-2.
  2. Seltman, Whitney. “What is Computer Vision Syndrome?” WebMD Medical Reference August 17, 2019. https://www.webmd.com/eye-health/computer-vision-syndrome#1
  3. Tosini, Gianluca, Ian Ferguson, and Kazuo Tsubota. “Effects of blue light on the circadian system and eye physiology.” Molecular vision 22 (2016): 61.
  4. O’hagan, J. B., M. Khazova, and L. L. A. Price. “Low-energy light bulbs, computers, tablets and the blue light hazard.” Eye 30.2 (2016): 230-233.
  5. AREDS2 Research Group. Lutein/zeaxanthin and omega-3 fatty acids for age-related eye disease study 2 (AREDS2) controlled randomized clinical trial. JAMA. 2013 pub online May 5.