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and Kyra Smith-Cullen
This past year has given many people a new outlook on the world around them.
Everything is virtual, which means all eyes are on computer screens, cell phones and digital devices for almost every aspect of everyday life.
According to a July 2020 survey by Alcon / Ipsos, Americans’ screen time has increased during the pandemic: 59% of respondents said they spend more time on their smartphone / mobile or watching TV and 55% of Americans reported their time in front of a magnified computer screen.
Optometrists see problems as a result of this increase.
According to a November survey by the American Optometric Association’s (AOA) Institute for Health Policy, 83% of physicians have noticed an increase in patient complaints about vision problems related to prolonged screen time or using a computer.
Digital eye strain is the result of this new vision, said Dr Judith Bianchi Bowser, director of optometry at Geisinger.
âThe first thing I noticed was that it all happened so quickly,â Bowser said of the transition from in-person events to anything that has gone virtual.
âA lot of people didn’t think it would be long term. But over time people realized it was going to take a while, âshe said.
Eye strain was the result of not only staring at screens all the time, but it was something our eyes weren’t used to.
“Our eyes were not designed to use computers especially for long periods of time, and as a result many people who spend long hours reading or working at a computer experience eye discomfort and vision problems.” said Dr. William T. Reynolds, President of the AOA.
âThe eyes work harder than they want. You have to look closely and your eyes have to exert more energy, âBowser said. She likened it to holding your arms in the air for a long time – bending your elbow may be necessary due to fatigue.
The most common symptoms of digital eye strain are headache, blurred vision, dry eyes, neck and shoulder pain, and eye irritation.
Reynolds said there is no standard number of hours that adults should limit their screen time to. He warned that people who spend at least two consecutive hours in front of a computer or using a digital screen every day are at greater risk of eye strain.
âIf you’re someone who has to work at a computer or use a digital screen for an extended period of time, you should take regular breaks throughout the day,â Reynolds said. “Ideally, you want to try an activity or perform a task where your eyes don’t have to focus on anything up close.”
Bowser recommends a 20/20/20 approach to rest the eyes.
âEvery 20 minutes, look at 20 feet for 20 seconds,â she says.
The effects of eye strain are usually not long lasting.
âMany of the visual symptoms experienced by users are only temporary and will diminish after stopping computer work or using the digital device,â said Reynolds. âHowever, some people may experience a continuous decrease in their visual abilities, such as blurred distance vision, even after they stop working at a computer. If nothing is done to address the cause of the problem, the symptoms will continue to recur and may get worse with future use of the digital screen. “
People blink less when looking at a screen, which can irritate their eyes and dry them out.
âAs with all screens, our blink rate decreases, which can also cause dryness and irritation to the eyes, so blinking intentionally can help,â Reynolds said.
Bowser suggested artificial tears to solve this problem.
Changes in office setup and habits can help people with eye strain.
âMost computers are better suited to remote,â Reynolds said. âErgonomically, you want the top of the monitor to be at eye level. This places the eye in a slightly downward gaze, which is best for close viewing. Good contrast and suitable brightness are also helpful. “
Bowser pointed out that a kitchen table height is probably not the right height to display a screen. She suggests moving the computer to another area and sitting up straight. The screen should be tilted at an angle of 10 to 15 degrees.
Other problems can include strained neck, strained back, and headaches from looking at the computer for too long.
Holding this iPhone in your hands is no better.
âIt’s really that bad for your eyes, maybe worse,â Bowser said. Watching a smaller screen size takes effort. The smaller screen can be difficult for those with vision.
âMost of the complaints I hear about farsightedness come from people in their early 50s and late 40s. This is when you need bifocal lenses, âBowser said.
Blue lightBlue light is high energy, short wavelength blue and purple light emitted by digital displays. The biggest source of blue light is sunlight, but it is also found in most LED devices. Colors in the visible spectrum tend to appear white due to their wavelengths and energy. Each color has a different energy and wavelength.
âSome UV lamps are dangerous. Short wavelengths of light can cause damage, âBowser said.
“Research categorically shows that overexposure to UV rays can increase the risk of serious eye conditions,” Reynolds said, “but the verdict is on the blue light emitted by digital screens.”
Bowser said she wears glasses with the blue light filter, which works well for her.
Blue light blocking glasses have lenses that the manufacturers say block or filter blue light to reduce the risk of potential eye damage.
âTypically, lenses that look yellower tend to filter more blue light than brighter ones,â Reynolds said. “However, tinted lenses that completely block blue light from the eyes are not recommended, as the eyes still need blue light, both physiologically and for color perception.”
He said some have seen benefits from glasses, âbut the point is, there isn’t enough science to support or deny their benefit.
âWith or without blue light glasses, practicing eye-friendly screen habits is a guaranteed way to reduce your eye strain,â he said.
Keeping your eyes healthy during the pandemicReynolds and Bowser said the key to keeping your eyes healthy is having comprehensive annual eye exams.
âI can’t minimize the importance of being seen once a year,â she said. An eye exam can detect signs of diabetes or unknown glaucoma. âThere are a lot of things we can pick up,â she says.
âA comprehensive in-person eye exam can detect over 270 serious conditions ranging from diabetes to hypertension, STIs, brain tumors and glaucoma,â Reynolds said.
âMany eye and vision problems don’t have any obvious signs or symptoms, so you might not know there is a problem,â he warned.
These early indicators, when captured by an optometrist, can be corrected in most cases, Bowser said.
However, due to the pandemic, some patients have delayed their return for their annual check-ups, Bowser said, and ended up with significant eye problems.
Reynolds referred to a November survey by the AOA’s Health Policy Institute, where 43% of physicians reported deterioration in the health of their chronically ill patients due to lack of regular care since the pandemic.