Prevent Digital Eye Strain in a Digitally-Driven World

April 22, 2019

digital eye strain
Molly Geipel

According to a 2018 Nielsen report, the average American adult spends more than 11 hours every day watching, reading, listening to, and interacting with media — much of which is happening on or through a digital device. Between streaming podcasts, checking emails, reading the news, watching sports, and scrolling through social media, our eyes are glued to screens from sunup to sundown.

All that quality time our eyeballs are spending with screens is not good for vision health. Users will start to experience discomfort — or digital eye strain — after just two hours of continued screen usage. So how do you protect your eyes when your world revolves around digital technology? Read on to learn more about digital eye strain, what causes it, and how to prevent or reduce it.

What is Digital Eye Strain?

Digital eye strain, also known as "computer vision syndrome," describes a series of eye- and vision-related symptoms that are caused by prolonged use of digital screens, whether that be via laptop, smartphone, tablet, or TV.

The symptoms of digital eye strain include:

  • Eyestrain
  • Headache
  • Blurred vision
  • Dry eyes
  • Neck and shoulder pain

Symptoms of digital eye strain are usually temporary and will dissipate after a couple hours away from a screen. However, if no steps are taken to prevent or relieve digital eye strain, it is possible for certain symptoms (like blurred vision) to persist long after closing your computer or powering down your device.

What Causes Computer Vision Syndrome?

What is it about digital screens that makes them so much harder on our eyes than analog technology, like books? There are a number of factors at play that cause our eyes greater strain when viewing digital screens.

Compared to print material, digital devices:

  • Tend to have lower contrast between text and background
  • Emit blue light, which strains eyes more than warmer natural light
  • Often have glares or reflections
  • Have less precisely defined text and images
  • Are viewed at suboptimal distances, angles, or postures

Who is Most Likely to Be Affected?

Your likelihood of experiencing digital eye strain is influenced by two factors: your daily screen time and your visual abilities.

The onset of digital eye strain happens after two hours of sustained screen use. If you use a computer at work, you likely spend upwards of 8 hours staring at a screen every day — not even counting your personal use of digital devices after work hours. For that reason, people who use computers for work are most prone to digital eye strain. But with the average adult spending over two hours a day just interacting with their smartphone, we're all at risk.

People with certain vision problems — such as farsightedness and astigmatism — may be more prone to digital eye strain than people with 20/20 vision. Eye coordination issues, inadequate eye closing, or aging changes such as presbyopia may also increase digital eye strain. Even minor uncorrected vision problems can greatly amplify discomfort while using digital devices and screens.

If you wear glasses or contacts, you may struggle more with digital eye strain. This is because your prescription may not be suited for the distances at which you are engaging with your computer, tablet, or smartphone. People with glasses may find themselves tilting their heads at odd angles to try to see their screen better, which is linked to neck and shoulder pain.

How to Prevent Digital Eye Strain if You Work at a Computer

The simplest way to prevent digital eye strain is to limit exposure to screens and devices. However, if your work requires using a computer, that may not be possible for you.

Here are some tips to reduce symptoms of digital eye strain:

  1. Keep Your Distance — Viewing screens at too close a distance is hard on your eyes. Put adequate space between your eyes and the screen. For computers, you should be at arm's length, or a comfortable distance to (hypothetically) high-five the screen. For hand-held devices, hold the device at eye level at a distance where you can comfortably read the screen but no closer. Height-adjustable desks and monitor arms can help you find the most ergonomic (or "eyegonomic") position for your screens.

  2. Dim the Lights — Dimming the surrounding lights and reducing exposure to direct sunlight will make your screen the brightest thing in the room. When your screen competes with other bright lights, your eyes have to work harder to focus on the screen. Dimming the lights also helps to reduce glare.

  3. Wear Computer Glasses — Computer glasses are designed to reduce digital eye strain by filtering blue light, counteracting glare, and helping eyes adjust to objects in middle distance, like computer screens. There are many models of computer glasses available without prescription lenses. If you're a glasses-wearer, you can also opt to have your regular lenses treated to be anti-reflective and filter blue light.

  4. Practice the 20-20-20 Rule — Created by the American Optometric Association, the 20-20-20 rule says to take a 20-second break every 20 minutes to look at something 20 feet away. This helps to break up the prolonged exposure to a screen that causes digital eye strain.

  5. Blink Frequently — We're more likely to stare without blinking enough when we're using digital screens. Blinking more frequently will help prevent dry eye and will help your eyes refocus.

According to the Vision Council, 80% of American adults report more than two hours of daily use of digital devices and 59% experience symptoms of digital eye strain. It's clear that digital eye strain is a prevalent and growing health issue. Take steps to prevent digital eye strain so that your digital habits don't cause long-term vision damage.

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