One day after Sarah Hinkley had been working on her computer for about five hours, she noticed her eyes started to burn and feel dry. “My focus became blurry like I was looking through a haze,” she says.
As an optometrist, Hinkley knew exactly what was wrong. She was suffering from digital eye strain, also known as computer vision syndrome.
It’s becoming a widespread problem as more people spend hours each day looking at computers, cellphones, iPads, tablets and other electronic devices, says Hinkley, a spokeswoman for the American Optometric Association and an associate professor at the Ferris State University Michigan College of Optometry. “It is rampant, especially as we move toward smaller devices and the prominence of devices increase in our everyday lives.”
In fact, almost 70% of U.S. adults say they have experienced some of the symptoms of digital eye strain, according to a survey conducted for the Vision Council, a trade group for vision care products and services. About 60% of respondents say they spend at least six hours looking at screens daily.
The problem is starting to occur more frequently in kids, Hinkley says. “As children acquire cellphones at younger ages and are using them more frequently during the day, we are seeing the symptoms presenting in younger children more than we have before.”
The symptoms may include dry, red and irritated eyes, fatigue, eye strain, blurry vision, problems focusing, headaches, neck and shoulder pain and possibly even words moving on the screen because of underlying eye alignment issues, which are binocular vision (how the eyes work together) problems, she says. The latter is not as common as dry eyes, eye strain and blurry vision.
There are some people who can use a computer for hours without any issues, but others who have an underlying dry eye issue may be bothered by symptoms after 10 minutes on the computer, she says. The syndrome causes discomfort but doesn’t typically cause vision loss or any permanent damage, Hinkley says.
Brooklyn optometrist Justin Bazan, a consultant to the Vision Council, says some research suggests the blue light (high-energy visible light) emitted by screens could lead to age-related macular degeneration. Studies of pig eyes show blue light damages the cells of the retina, he says.
He suggests using a pair of computer glasses that use specifically treated lens to block the potentially damaging blue light. “This is something I recommend and prescribe for my patients,” he says. These glasses are different from others prescribed for other daily activities. The standard anti-reflective coatings do not help prevent the blue light damage, he says.
James Sheedy, a professor at Pacific University College of Optometry, says that although blue light can damage the retina, the radiation from digital devices is much less than any daylight outdoor environment. Sunglass protection outdoors is much more important.
Hinkley says there is some research evidence that blue light may contribute to macular degeneration development, but further investigation is needed to explore any connection with screen use.
In the meantime, there are several approaches to treatment for digital eye strain, Hinkley says. The primary ones are to limit screen time and/or take frequent breaks. Some people use artificial tear solutions or other treatments for dryness, and others may need vision therapy including focusing therapy if they have underlying issues with their focusing or binocular vision systems. Some people need to train themselves to blink more often, she says.
Digital eye strain can be exacerbated in adults who wear prescription eyewear because sometimes bifocals and progressive lenses are not ergonomically suited for reading on the computer, she says. Anyone with symptoms of the problem should make sure their glasses are optimal for computer work, Hinkley says. They may need glasses with computer lenses or occupation lenses that work well when they are sitting at the computer.
She recommends indirect lighting on the monitor rather than a lamp pointing at the screen that may create glare. If your monitor faces a window, you should have it an angle to reduce glare.
Some businesses hire an optometrist to check the work-station ergonomics of their employees to make sure they are set up for visual efficiency and comfort, Hinkley says.
The Vision Council’s medical advisory board offers these tips to prevent or lessen digital eye strain:
- Take a 20-20-20 break: every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break and look at something 20 feet away.
- Adjust the brightness of your device. Consider changing your background color from bright white to cool gray.
- Adjust your screen so it is directly in front of your face and slightly below eye level. Do not tilt a computer monitor.
- Position yourself or your device, so there is sufficient distance between your eyes and the screen.
- Lessen the amount of overhead and surrounding light competing with your device’s screen.
- When using a computer, first sit in your chair and extend your arm. Your palm should rest comfortably on the monitor as if you’re high-fiving the screen.
- Keep hand-held devices a safe distance from your eyes and just below eye level.
- Increase text size to better define the content on your screen. Use the settings control to make adjustments that feel comfortable to your eyes.
- Remind yourself to blink more often. Staring at a digital screen can affect the number of times you blink, causing eyes to dry.
- Parents should limit the amount of screen time for children and reduce their screen time in front of children to set healthy standards in the home.
- Blink. Breathe. Break.
Time people say they spend daily on digital devices:
- 33%: 3-5 hours
- 32%: 6-9 hours
- 28%: 10 or more hours
- 5%: 2 hours or less
- 2%: do not use digital devices
Source: A survey by the Vision Council