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Screen Fatigue: Expert Tips for Preventing Digital Eyestrain

Screen Fatigue: Expert Tips for Preventing Digital Eyestrain

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Computer and coffee, woman wearing glasses.

Getty Images/Robin Beckham

Many adults and children are coming up on a year of working and learning from home, connecting socially via Zoom or some other teleconferencing software and being even more glued to our screens than we were before the COVID-19 pandemic. As we gaze at the screen for hours each day, our eyes can feel the effects – dryness, burning, tearing and watering. But does so much screen time cause long-term damage, and what can we do to ease the strain?

First, it helps to understand what’s really happening when we stare at our computers, tablets and phones for long periods. “Light comes in visible and invisible forms; one invisible form is ultraviolet (UV) light and is known to be associated with certain eye diseases, such as snow blindness or welder’s cornea, cataracts and cancers of the surface of the eye,” says Dr. Maria Stunkel, a pediatric ophthalmologist with Mercy Clinic Children’s Eye Specialists.

“Blue light has a short wavelength and high energy compared to other colors that we perceive and is the closest visible light to UV rays,” she continues. “This has led to a concern about blue light causing long-term damage to our eyes and our health.”

Most blue light comes from the sun, but we absorb smaller amounts from fluorescent lights, LED bulbs, televisions, computers and smartphones. Exposure to too much blue light late in the day is known to disrupt the natural sleep cycle, which is why experts recommend turning off all screens at least an hour before going to bed.

Besides disrupting sleep, too much screen time can cause “digital eyestrain,” Stunkel says, leading to dry eyes, a gritty or burning sensation, blurred vision, watering eyes and headaches.

“Blue light alone does not cause digital eyestrain,” she continues. “Rather, it comes from how we use our screens and how much we use them. We naturally blink less when we are looking at something on a screen, which can lead to dryness and irritation of the eyes. We also tend to hold screens close to our face, which can further strain our eyes during prolonged periods of time.”

Stunkel recommends people of all ages take frequent breaks by following the “20-20-20 rule.” For every 20 minutes of screen time, look into the distance 20 feet, perhaps outside a window, for 20 seconds. If you aren’t using a timer, your eyes can take a break at the end of a book chapter, at the end of a school lesson, between video game levels and so forth. Blue-blocking glasses are marketed as a protective measure, but Stunkel says there’s no strong evidence that they protect against long-term eye damage.

In addition to the 20-20-20 rule, artificial tears to treat dryness can soothe symptoms. “Avoid any drops that claim to ‘keep the red out,’ as they can make dryness worse,” she says. “Try not to hold screens too close to the face – a good rule of thumb is to hold your phone or tablet a forearm’s distance away. If you wear contact lenses, opt to wear glasses as much as possible during screen time, since contact lens-wear can exacerbate dryness.” If symptoms persist despite these recommendations, see your eye doctor.

While digital eyestrain can be annoying, it’s not usually cause for worry. Stunkel sums up: “The bottom line is that there is no scientific evidence that blue light from digital devices causes permanent damage to the eye.” 

Mercy Clinic Children’s Eye Specialists, 621 S. New Ballas Road, Tower A, Suite 585A, St. Louis, 314-251-6478, mercy.net/practice/mercy-clinic-childrens-eye-specialists-medical-tower-a

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