Q: I work in front of a computer all day. How can I protect my eyes from wearing out?
A: The other day, I got an unexpected alert on my phone: “Screen time—54 minutes”. After I got over the shock of my phone’s implicit judgy-ness, I clicked on the alert. With the installation of Apple’s new iOS 12 software, I had invited this new feature into my phone, which tracks not only my screen time, but also how much time I spend on each app. It’s a really great new addition, which will hopefully make us more mindful of how much time we spend on our digital devices.
From a psychological perspective, there are many reasons to curtail screen time, among them erosion in the quality of “offline” relationships, anxiety upon withdrawal from the device, depression, and exacerbation of OCD tendencies. Physically, the main symptoms are digital eye strain and neck pain.
So, what is digital eye strain, and what can you do to prevent it?
Digital eye strain is a constellation of signs and symptoms resulting from prolonged usage of digital devices (smartphone, tablet, laptop, desk computer), both at home and at work.
Some of the symptoms are:
● Blurry or fluctuating vision
● Neck and shoulder pain
● Dry eyes
● Tired eyes
● Decreased attention span and irritability
How do we alleviate digital eye strain?
1. The 20/20/20 Rule—every twenty minutes, look twenty feet away, for twenty seconds. I also recommend that, if possible, don’t just look away, but get up out of your chair, and move your head and neck around. Changing body and eye position frequently ensures that the muscles don’t lock in one place, which causes strain and pain. Although this sounds simplistic, it is actually very helpful.
2. Computer glasses—these are made specifically for the unique working distance of digital devices, which ranges from 10”-22”. The lens prescription itself gives a magnification boost to help relieve the strain of tired eyes stuck at a fixed working distance for hours on end. Antireflective coatings embedded in the lens help cut the glare from the screen that adds to light sensitivity and fatigue. Some contact lens companies are making lenses with “digital zone optics” to decrease the stress on the ciliary muscles in the eye, which control focusing.
3. Blue light protection—blue light, which is high energy light near the UV end of the visible spectrum, is found not only in sunlight, but in our digital devices as well. There has been a little controversy over whether blue light actually damages ocular tissue—more longitudinal studies are needed before that claim can be verified and addressed. What we do know, is that blue light exposure suppresses the release of melatonin, which is a crucial component in the sleep cycle. Apple addressed this issue by decreasing the amount of blue light emitted on their devices after ten pm. Increased exposure to blue light also causes strain and ocular fatigue. Blue light filters are available, either embedded in prescription lenses, or as a coating that cuts down on the amounts of blue light entering the eyes. Turning off digital devices an hour or so before bedtime will prepare your body for deeper, more restful sleep.
4. Workspace and ergonomic considerations—ideally, computers should be positioned 20”-28” away from the eyes and 4”-5” lower than eye level. Try to position the computer screen away from direct overhead lights and windows to prevent excess glare. Make sure your work chair is padded and comfortable, allowing your feet to rest flat on the floor. These tips will ensure that your eyes, neck and back are aligned for optimal viewing.
5. Blink exercises—statistics have shown that blink rates are lower when we are working on computers, which means that tears are not spread across the eyes as often as they should be, leading to dry eyes. Not only do we blink less on the computer, but our blinks are not as complete, meaning the upper and lower lids are not touching on the blink, which further affects the adequate spreading of tears. Aside from using artificial tears during the work day, taking a few seconds to purposefully open and close your eyes will help relax your eye muscles, as well as improve tear flow.
6. Put your phone down. One of the ironies about digital eye strain is that we spend the entire work day on the computer, and when we come home to relax—what do we do? We reach for our phones or tablets to unwind. Choose to read a real book—with actual pages—rather than an ebook on your favorite device. Even watching TV is a better screen choice, since the television (hopefully!) is not within the viewing range that creates near-point discomfort.
Technology is impossible, as well as impractical, to avoid. Listening to your body—adopting healthy digital hygiene habits are the key to symptom-free screen time.