The COVID-19 pandemic suddenly migrated behaviors and routines that we once completed in person behind a computer screen. Within weeks, children were participating in online learning, patients realized the convenience of telemedicine appointments, office meetings became Zoom meetings, and even happy hour get-togethers became virtual social events. While technology has allowed us to continue working, learning, and participating in healthy activities, it comes with eye health risks.
Recent research found that the average U.S. adult will spend the equivalent of 44 years of their life staring at digital device screens. Adults spend more than 6,200 hours a year looking at televisions, smartphones, and laptops. The usage breaks down to four and a half hours a day looking at TV, almost five hours on a computer, and over four and a half hours on a smartphone. Not surprisingly, those estimates increased during the pandemic, with survey respondents sharing that their screen time increased two hours per day just in entertainment activities.
So much screen time can lead to various eye health concerns, ranging from dry eyes, eye strain, nearsightedness, and a condition called digital eye strain (DES). Read on to familiarize yourself with the risks of DES. Then consider if you’re spending too much time reading and scrolling through your social feed and what that might mean for your eye health.
What is Digital Eye Strain (DES)?
DES, or computer vision syndrome (CVS), refers to a group of vision and eye-related issues caused by prolonged digital screen use. When we read or watch digital content on a screen for a prolonged period, it makes our eyes work harder, straining their surrounding muscles. Reading content from a screen is more demanding on the eyes than reading printed materials. Digital typography is often not as sharp and doesn’t offer as much contrast as black text on white paper. Computer screen glare and reflections can also impede readability, furthering the need to strain the eyes to scrutinize digital materials.
Other factors that can lead to DES include:
- Poor lighting
- Being situated too close or too far from the device
- Poor posture
- Uncorrected vision problems
What are the Symptoms of DES?
DES symptoms may include:
- Blurred vision
- Neck and shoulder pain
- Dry eyes
Who is at Risk for DES?
People who spend at least two continuous hours looking at a digital screen every day are at the most significant risk for developing DES.
How to Combat DES
To help reduce your risk of experiencing DES side effects, follow the 20-20-20 rule. Take a 20-second break to look at something 20 feet away every 20 minutes.
What About Blue Light?
If you spend the majority of your workday on a computer, you may have heard that you should protect your eyes from blue light. While the long-term risks of the blue light emitted from digital devices are unknown, researchers believe that excessive screen time and working too close to a device can lead to DES or possibly more severe eye damage.
The eye is not well equipped to block the blue light emitted from digital screens. As a result, the light passes through the cornea and lens, reaching the retina. Researchers believe that long-term blue light exposure could damage retinal cells and cause such vision problems as age-related macular degeneration, eye cancer, cataracts, or growths on the clear covering over the white part of the eye.
If you know that due to your job, hobbies, or habits, you spend an excessive number of hours looking at a computer screen every day, talk to your doctor. They can counsel you on lifestyle changes, the possible use of blue light glasses, and other strategies to help you protect the long-term health of your eyes.