Digital Screens and Eye Strain

Digital eye strain
Most people—nearly 90 percent of them in the United States—use their digital devices for at least two hours a day. Many use them for much more. In fact, some people don’t even limit their use to one screen. More and more people—70 percent—are looking at multiple screens nearly all at once.

And it’s costing us health-wise. A survey by The Vision Council found that of the more than 10,000 adults polled, 65 percent of them experience digital eye strain, including physical discomfort such as dry eyes, irritated eyes, blurred vision, headaches, and neck or back pain after staring at a screen (or more than one screen) for hours.

And here’s a kicker: those who used only one device were better off than people who used multiple screens. In fact, of those using only one screen, 53 percent of them had symptoms of digital eye strain. But of those using more than one screen, 75 percent of them had digital eye strain symptoms.

While eye strain can potentially be a problem for anyone spending hours viewing digital screens, those in their 20s may want to heed this: 20-somethings had the highest rate of digital eye strain symptoms of any age group—73 percent. It stands to reason, too, since that age group virtually grew up with digital technology—in many forms—making them extremely comfortable working on multiple screens and multiple devices, according to Justin Bazan, an optometrist and medical advisor to The Vision Council. Bazan points out, for instance, that if your smartphone doubles as an alarm clock, then “you have a digital device the second your eyes are open” before you even get to your laptop screen.

One contributing factor to digital eye strain is proximity to the screen. For many, it’s eight to 12 inches away from their eyes, which can decrease blinking rates. Bazan explains, “Blinking is crucial to keeping the ocular surface well protected from environmental assaults and our eyes from drying out. They’ll become dry and irritated, and vision will become blurry as well.”

Then there’s the blue light, a high-energy visible light emitted by digital devices. Bazan says, “That light is so close to ultraviolet, which, for years now, has been shown to cause damage on the cells of the eyes. Preliminary research indicates that blue light, similar to UV light, can cause damage to the cells inside of our eyes, and retinal cells produce vision.” Add that factor to the often bright overhead lights in an office or home setting causing glare—and that can increase the amount of blue light penetrating the eyes.

Why does it affect our eyes so much? Bazan illustrates it this way: “When we look at ink on paper, our eyes know at what distance the ink and paper is and we can lock the focus on it.” Pixels on a screen are different in that they are hard points of focus and compete for our eyes. He adds, “Since a pixel is a hard target, we see that our focusing system is always in a state of trying to find exactly where the pixel is. That constant focusing causes strain.”

Since it’s unrealistic to suggest not using digital screens, how can we protect our eyes? One way is to practice what’s termed the 20-20-20 rule. Here’s how it works: for each 20-minute interval you’re gazing at your screen, rest your eyes for 20 seconds by looking 20 feet away. Additionally, you can opt for yellow-tinged specialized computer eyewear, which works to take the strain off the eyes by focusing on the computer, reducing glare and filtering blue light. Likewise, keep your distance from the computer or other digital screen—about arm’s length away.

At any rate, if you are focused on digital screens for a few or more hours a day, be sure you protect your eyes because you're going to need them for a lifetime.


This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.

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