For those of us whose jobs require us to look at a computer all day, our lives can feel like a never-ending series of screens. From looking at a computer at work to checking our phones during our free time, the potential effects on your eyes can be scary. We wondered if we were doing damage to our eyes with our daily routines, and if we were, what we could do to lessen the strain on our eyes at the end of the day. We asked ophthalmologist Ashley Brissette, MD MSc, Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at Weill Cornell Medicine, NYC just that. She told us what we should be worried about regarding screens and our eyes, what myths are lurking around the Internet, and what we can do to prevent any damage to them.
If you work a 9-5 where you look at a computer all day, how does it affect your eyes?
Computer screens and digital devices can affect the eyes a few different ways. First, when we use screens and read or scroll through media, we blink less which can cause the eyes to dry out. In fact, it’s known that we blink half as much as our normal blink rate (approximately 15x a minute) when we use computers and digital devices.
Some symptoms people experience when their eyes are dry include blurry vision, burning, irritation, heavy or tired eyes, eye strain, and even tearing up (reflex response to the dryness!)
The above symptoms can lead to eye strain, headaches, and even stress. The level of discomfort also increases with prolonged computer use and may worsen over time. Any of the above symptoms in association with computer use has been referred to as “computer vision syndrome”
Have you seen significant damage done to your patients’ eyes from excessive screen use?
It is unlikley that excessive screen use will cause permanent damage to your eyes. However, eye strain and dry eye symptoms can worsen over time, especially with prolonged computer use and if not treated early on.
Is there anything you can do to lessen the damage screens are causing to your eyes if you do have to look at a computer screen all day?
- If you do have to look at a screen for long hours, a good rule of thumb is the “20-20-20” rule: every 20 minutes, shift your eyes to look at an object at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. Taking regular breaks is important for resting the eyes, blinking, and limiting eye strain.
- If you experience a lot of glare, you can try a matte screen filter over the computer screen
- Consider having a humidifier in the office or close to your computer if the surrounding air is dry
- Use artificial tears — these are moisturizing drops for the eyes, they are sold over the counter at the pharmacy and there are lots of brands available, and it’s a personal preference to which one to use, some people like a drop that’s more thick, others like thethinnerin. Just avoid any drops that say “get the red out” as they can make your eyes more red when you stop using them. You can use them as needed if the eyes feel tired/heavy/dry/irritated or if you are at the computer for long hours. If you are using them more than 4x a day, I recommend preservative-free versions of these drops.
- Blink exercises (yes, remind yourself to blink!)
What influences your eyes more, looking at a computer screen or phone screen?
Both can effect the eyes, as when we stare at a screen we blink less, which can cause the eyes to become dry. Think of screen time as a total of all digitial devices – computers, tablets, smart phones, etc. We often move from computer to cell phone to Netflix on our tablets throughout the day, and these can all impact the eyes.
How long does it take for looking at a screen all day to affect your eyes?
The effect of screen time is different for everyone! Symptoms of eye dryness and strain can be aggravated by a number of other exposures in our day to day lives. For example, contact lenses or prior LASIK eye surgery can exacerbate dryness and irritation, medications such as antihistamines or antidepressants can cause eye dryness, and low humidity environments such as office buildings with blowing air conditioning or heat can also cause eye irriation. People with any of the above risk factos may experience eye symptoms with even minimal screen time.
The big thing to know is that you don’t have to suffer with symptoms. Simple measures such as those listed above can help. I also suggest seeing your eye doctor for a formal examination, so that you can come up with a treatment plan that works for you and your lifestyle.
“Computer Vision Syndrome” has been coined to describe symptoms of sore eyes, dry eyes, teary eyes, blurry vision, double vision, light sensitivity, difficulty focusing on images, neck pain, headache or a combination of all of the above. Do you see a lot of patients come in complaining of this?
All the time. And its occuring in younger and younger people as well. Computer vision syndrome is extremely common, and only increasing as our worlds continue to revolve around screens. I ask all my patients what they do for work, and if they work long hours at a screen, because its an important part of my eye assessment.
Most people are happy to hear its not a symptom of anything more serious with their eyes or anything that may cause permanent damage.
What’s great is we have ways of treating these symtoms, to get your vision clearer and eyes more comfortable again. But computer vision syndrome and eye dryness can be long term and even lifetime conditions, which is why its important to see your eye care provider for assessment.
Does how far away the screen is from your eyes influence the level of damage done?
It is usually recommended to sit an arms length from a desktop computer as this is most ergonomic positioning for the body. Placing the screen so that your eyes are in slight down-gaze may help with eye dryness and irritation, as the eyelids will be slightly lower and covering the surface of the eye.
Is damage to your eyes from screens permanent, or can it improve over times of looking at screens less?
Luckily, there is no known permanent damage to the eyes from prolonged screen use.
Its all about treating symptoms early, modifying screen use and using tips such as the 20-20-20 rule to ensure that symptoms don’t worsen over time. Unfortunately, it is often impossible to cut down completely on screen time, but being cognizant of total time with digital devices and using some of the above tips can prevent you from developing symptoms, or can help prevent them from getting any worse over time.
Does screen time affect kids differently than adults?
Kids can develop symptoms of computer vision syndrome in the same way as adults. Excessive screen time can lead to eye dryness, irritation, fatigue, blurry vision, headaches, and eyestrain.
One study looked at specific factors related to children that may make them more prone to computer vision syndrome. When playing a video game on a screen, kids can play for prolonged periods of time with great concentration, leading to excessive dryness and accommodation, leading to symptoms of strain. As well, it is well known that kids often don’t complain of blurry vision because they may assume everyone sees the way they do. Desktop computers are often positioned for adults and may be too high for kids, causing them to look up, leaving the eyes more exposed and the neck more susceptible to strain. There are also many studies looking at the effect of computer use on the development and behavior of children, and these should also be considerations when establishing appropriate screen time for kids.
UV+ Blue Blocking glasses claim to provide protection from devices and artificial light while being able to be worn like regular glasses. In your opinion, do they actually work?
No, so save your money!
One question that a lot of my patients ask is the about the effect of blue light on the eyes from computers and other screens. Long term exposure to high energy blue and UV light may contribute to the development of skin cancer, cataracts, or macular degeneration.
However, there is no evidence that blue light exposure from screens is damaging to the eyes. In fact, the largest amount of blue light exposure comes from sunlight, and so I always tell patients to wear sunglasses when outside to protect from UV exposure — think of them as sunscreen for your eyes and eyelids!
The blue light exposure from screens is minimal and there is no evidence that it has been associated with long term damage. You can skip the ads for glasses that claim to protect eyes from blue light exposure from screens, as the American Academy of Ophthalmology does not recommend these. The computer vision syndrome effects are caused by how people use their screens and not generally by anything coming from the screens.
As phone use has increased over the past few years, have more patients come in with eye problems?
Absolutely. Phone use should be thought of as having the same effect on the eyes are computer screens. All digitial devices – cell phones, tablets, computers, laptops — can lead to computer vision syndrome, eye dryness, and strain. The total time spent on all of these devices should be considered when you expereience symptoms of computer vision syndrome.
What is the best advice you have for people who feel the strain of looking at a screen on their eyes?
If your eyes are consistently red, painful, sensitive to light, or the vision is persistently blurry then I recommend seeing an eye care specialist for an examination. Regular eye exams are important to ensure the eyes stay healthy, and for monitoring for any other forms of eye disease.
Even though using screens can impact your eyes, their use is unavoidable- our worlds revolve around screens. This is why it is important to know the risks of increased screen time, and to be prudent about treating any eye symptoms early.