By Frank Gimbel, ABOC-AC
Screens are just about everywhere we look today. Whether they are in the form of flat-screen TVs, PCs, laptops, cell phones, media players, smart watches, or some other technology, all of these devices can emit harmful blue light that can create digital eyestrain. With all this technology surrounding us, questions are stirred about the harm they can cause to the eye and overall health in general.
The dawn of the personal computer age has opened the door to what is known as CVS (Computer Vision Syndrome), or commonly known as digital eyestrain. This condition plagues all ages, spans all occupations, and can harm anyone who uses a computer or display device for prolonged periods of time. Let’s face it, our eyes were not designed to focus upon a specific finite distance for countless hours without experiencing fatigue, eyestrain, dry eyes, and blurred vision. Other disturbing factors can be noted with neck and back pain, double vision, vertigo, and polyopia (the struggle of refocusing the eyes). Additional aggravators can include poor lighting, improper ventilation, and screen glare. With extended computer use and other display devices, we are forcing our eyes to stay fixed on a specific distance for a prolonged period of time. Theoretically, this is highly unnatural for our eyes, and CVS affects about 90% of the people who invest three or more hours per day on a computer according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
We are now living in a wired world, dependent on digital devices, and susceptible to CVS more than ever. This widespread condition affects 70% of Americans and is growing daily. While CVS is most prevalent due to the action of eye movements and focusing, a New York Times study of pre-university students acknowledged that a large number of affected users do not have proper ergonomic computer set-ups in their work environment. The position of the user—seating, lighting, distances, screen size, foot placement, wrist and hand movements—all play a critical role in how one should set up a workstation in order to maximize comfort, efficiency, and ward off Computer Vision Syndrome.
When it comes to the conversation about digital devices, the discussion inevitably turns to blue light. There are two different types of blue light to consider. The first type is the healthy kind that helps to regulate our circadian sleep rhythm. It boosts alertness, heightens reaction times, elevates moods, and increases the feeling of well-being. This is the healthy type, and it’s what we all need to help lead a balanced and healthy life.
Blue light is a natural trigger and our bodies respond to its presence by suppressing melatonin production in the brain. In fact, all light tends to suppress melatonin production, but blue light “does so more powerfully” according to a May, 2012, Harvard Health Publications report. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland that influences our circadian rhythms: our body’s natural 24-hour cycle controlling the physical, mental, and behavioral changes that we experience on a daily basis. These circadian rhythms tell us when to be awake and alert, and when to rest. We’re just beginning to understand the powerful effects that inappropriate or untimely lighting may have on our well-being, but already the facts are starting to pile up and high-energy (blue) light is the subject of much of this focus.
Sleep disruption is a significant issue for millions of Americans, both adults and children. More than 40 million suffer chronic sleep disorders, and 20 million more report occasional problems sleeping according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Poor sleep habits promote irritability, and can significantly affect all areas of our physical health including reduced work performance, mood disorders, high blood pressure, risk of stroke, and diabetes. Studies show that exposure to blue light a couple of hours before bedtime can delay deep REM sleep significantly. The prevalence of blue light in our sleeping environments has many physicians worried.
The second type is harmful, and has been suggested to be a leading cause of macular degeneration and other hazardous ocular disorders. In terms of the visible light spectrum (ROY-G-BIV), blue light occurs between 380 nm to 500 nm. A nanometer (nm) is measured as one billionth of a meter (0.000 000 001 m), and is commonly used to measure a wavelength of light. What we are talking about when we discuss blue light is particularly High Energy Visible (HEV) light, the violet/blue band of the color spectrum which exists everywhere around us, whether we are indoors or outside. Blue light is actually everywhere. When outside, light from the sun travels through the atmosphere. Inside, blue light can be found in fluorescent lights, LED bulbs, and through the emission of electronic devices such as cell phones, tablets, and laptop computers.
Prior to 2010, the conversation about blue light was most often connected to outdoor exposure and discussions about UV protection. This was the case until April 2010 when the release of the first iPad spawned what was to become “The Tablet Revolution”. Before long, these new-age devices were mass-produced by many competitors in the market, and more tablets flooded shelves in stores and were openly embraced. Tablets soon became the go-to media platform replacing many magazines, newspapers, and paperback books. While these new high-tech devices reduced paper waste, they quickly outsold traditional computers, and created new types of visual problems to combat. When using standard computers on desks and tables, the screen is positioned at a safe mid-distance range. Tablets, on the other hand, are held at 12-to-24 inches from the eyes, and their portable nature increases average hourly usage. Interconnectivity with smartphones and apps became prevalent, and now over 35% of Americans own at least one tablet.
The downside to using tablets, smartphones, and other devices is the backlit display. Displays typically work through LED (light emitting diode) technology, and vary between white LED and RGB backlit designs. The white version is most often used inside mobile LCD (liquid crystal display), desktop, and notebook screens. White LEDs are normally made from a blue LED with a wide spectrum of yellow phosphor to create the emission of white light. The second type of backlit display most often found is made from an RGB LED design where red, green, and blue LEDs are controlled to produce different color temperatures of white light. Concern about blue light exposure relates to its placement on the color spectrum. Compared to longer wavelength colors within the spectrum, blue light and HEV wavelengths are shorter and glimmer easiest on backlit displays. This flicker effect causes glare, and can lower visual contrast inherently decreasing clarity and sharpness on backlit devices.
The naked eye alone does not have enough protection to filter out the harmful types of blue light. Extended exposure to it can lead to retina damage and loss of vision, and it can contribute to age related macular degeneration. With 93% of teens owning or having access to a computer, it has become imperative to begin educating them about the risks of blue light, the different types, and why it’s important to protect their eyes now while using these devices.
Typical viewing distances for digital devices vary. Desktop computer screens are usually set for an approximate 22-inch focal length from the eye. This standard focal distance of about 22 inches was common with most computer use, and generally speaking, worked well for many PC users. Then, as technology changed, this standard became about 18 inches with the adaptation of more laptops. Now, with even more tablet use, we find focal lengths to have moved even closer since these devices are positioned 12-to-24 inches away. Smaller gadgets such as smart phones are even closer when used for text messaging, for example, placing even more strain on our eyes causing headaches and visual fatigue. As the day winds down, device users tend to move their backlit devices closer for visual comfort. The reason behind this is that the focusing system of their eyes begins to “lock up”, and they then move objects closer to keep the muscles of the eyes in focus. By doing so, the end result is that they only induce more stress on the eye creating greater strain and discomfort. All of this exposure to technology creates an immediate need for products that help defend our eyes from digital devices and enhance proper vision.
According to The Vision Council DigitEYEzED Report, approximately 70% of American adults experience some form of digital eyestrain due to lengthy use of electronic devices. The most common report for computer usage per day varied from 6 to 9 hours, and the number of adults now spending more than 10 hours per day rose another 4%. When it comes to computer or tablet use, the eye is simply not designed to focus on pixels and hard targets. The most likely time adults experience digital eyestrain is between 6:00pm and 9:00pm, and 63% of adults did not know that their electronics emitted high-energy visible or blue light. This was one of many staggering headlines to discover, and the figures are only expected to grow with more digital dependency and use.
Ways to prevent digital eyestrain can be tied to proper ergonomics. When it comes to using a computer, it is ideal to have overhead lighting but not brighter than the monitor. This should be the brightest light in the room, and the top of the monitor should be at eye level or just below. Proper viewing distance is key and should vary between 20 and 40 inches—one arm length from the screen. Keyboards should be placed in an area where the wrist is comfortable, and the upper arms should hang vertically with the torso. Supportive chairs that allow the user to firmly position their feet flat on the floor are needed as well. Lastly are eyeglasses that block high-energy visible blue light.
Extended computer viewing has many drawbacks to note. One is reduced blink rate. Studies have shown that a computer user’s blink rate over an extended period of time can reduce to as much as one-half to two-thirds of the normal rate at which one would blink if not working on a computer. This translates to drier and more tired eyes.
To help combat this and enhance vision, GUNNAR Optiks offers a wide array of specialized blue light prevention gear to help protect your eyes from this entire screen-based technology. The lenses trick the eyes to think they are focusing far away, allowing the eyes to relax and feel like they are focusing at distance. Available in over-the-counter and prescription options, their lenses are designed to reduce eyestrain, headaches, blurred vision, and even dry eye syndrome. One key point to note is that all over-the-counter GUNNAR lenses have a slight focusing power in their design. The power is a +0.20D add that aids with close visual needs providing extra clarity and promoting less strain.
GUNNAR’s computer glasses use proprietary wrapped lens and frame shapes to help prevent dry eye syndrome, and keep the eyes lubricated and refreshed. Their frame designs limit air currents from drying the eye, keep in healthy humidity, and allow for more visual comfort. GUNNAR views the number one alleviated symptom of computer vision syndrome is dry eye syndrome. This leads to a greater reduction of corneal abrasions, corneal scaring, and encourages protective tear film layers to remain replenished while working away at the screen.
Let’s not forget about another booming segment to consider: gamers. According to Polygon.com, more than 155 million Americans routinely play video games. Over 42% play for at least three hours per week, and at least 4-out-of-5 American homes contain some type of gaming console used to play video games. These numbers are staggering, and prove to highlight the popularity of what Americans like to do for hobbies and leisure time. Thinking in terms of lenses, all gamers can benefit from some type of blue light protective and screen-enhancing eyewear. For a more in-depth rationale on the topic, gaming is much more than just a hobby—it’s a culture. Even considering statistics from 2014, U.S. gaming consumers spent $22.41 billion on games alone. The average player is 35 years old, and the generic stereotype ends there. Gaming reaches all ages: 56% are male (and yes, the remaining 44% are female), 26% of players are under 18 years of age, and 27% of video gamers are over the age of 50.
Over time, much like the TV and cable industries, games have become digital. They are purchased frequently online rather than in a physical store, and are played on more computer devices than ever before. Committed players acknowledge that they spend at least 6 and a half hours per week playing online games with others over the internet, and another 5 hours per week playing with other players in person. Of these frequent players, 15% spend even more time playing with their partner or spouse at home. As eyecare professionals, we have a lot to consider about our patients who enjoy spending this much time intently watching screens.
In addition, this digital shift appears to only be increasing, and console games and systems are quickly being left behind for more PC and tablet based gaming options. In 2010, the digital video game market only took a 29% share of the total gaming market. Four years later, digital sales almost doubled accounting for 52%, while physically purchased games were finally trumped and only made up 48% of the video game market.
The muscles of the eye function like the shutter and zoom of a camera. They bend and flex to allow for the items viewed to be seen as clearly as possible. Think of the muscles as if they were rubber bands. Throughout long periods of uninterrupted near-distance flexion of these eye muscles, the eye can lose elasticity and experience blurred vision, difficulty focusing, double vision, and eyestrain. GUNNAR has devoted itself to working on this extensively. Its lens design pre-focuses the light coming off of a screen to encourage the muscles of the eye to relax. In addition, the lenses enhance colors and allow details to appear sharper while looking at the screen. When setting out to find a lens material that was as tough as polycarbonate yet provides the optical clarity of glass, GUNNAR could not find one to meet its needs and created its own proprietary material. The end result is a plano mid-index of 1.51, with a low-density, high-ABBE value, and high-light transmission lens that provides minimal haze and delivers ultra-sharp optics. The lens appears to be crystal clear, and GUNNAR prides itself on its high degree of color control. Its goal is to create lenses that are enhanced to work with engineered tints and band-pass filters properly, all without any edge defects. GUNNAR claims its lens materials offer an optically-pure viewing experience with ultra-light, ergonomic properties for all screen users.
These lens ingredients make GUNNAR an ideal candidate for dedicated computer users, tablet aficionados, smartphone fanatics, and gaming enthusiasts. The lens purposely blocks out 65% of artificial HEV blue light. This percentage mimics the equivalent amount of natural blue light needed to help aid in overall health for the body and brain. The nanometer band focuses the coverage across the 400-to-450nm spectrum values which is also the most damaging to the eye. While GUNNAR primarily focuses its lens specialty on computer use, its wide range of tint enhancements allows for tailor made usage environments matched to recommended lens tints. Traditionally, the lens tint is the amber hue designed precisely for the type of light emitted from a computer screen. This tint allows the wearer to see in optimized optics, and feel the sensation of viewing the image in an eye-preferred natural light environment. The amber lens tint filters more fluorescent light and reduces high-intensity blue light, also filtering out 65% of HEV blue light at the 450nm light spectrum. While this lens tint can be worn by all, GUNNAR also produces its crystalline lens tint which is designed for graphic artists, photographers, video editors, and those who need to see in true color. This tint provides all the same benefits as the amber lenses, except it will not filter, contrast, or shift the color spectrum while worn, and it will filter out 15% of blue light at the 450nm light spectrum. The third option from GUNNAR is the non-polarized outdoor tint. It has been designed to provide a relaxed and dramatic visual experience for those who enjoy using their digital devices outdoors.
Screens emit glare and reflections, and any high quality optical device must have a cutting edge anti-reflective coating to reduce glare, and allow for more light to transmit through the lens to reach the eye. GUNNAR lens coatings all uphold high levels of scratch resistance while maintaining hydrophobic and oleophobic properties to reduce grease, moisture, and haze from their lenses. Prescription options are also available. Each single vision lens, regardless of power, comes with all of the coating and tint options specified above. In prescription form, GUNNAR’s material of choice is polycarbonate. However, upon special request, a 1.67 high index can also be obtained. All prescription lenses have the option to be ordered with either a crystalline or amber tinted lenses, and come with a blue flash anti-reflective coating on both sides.