New Thinking

How to save your vision in a world of perpetual screen time

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Ride the subway or hop on a plane, and most of the people around you will be staring at their phones. The odds are good, in fact, that you are one of them … and that your eyes hurt from too many hours on your device. Even though we’ve switched from old-fashioned CRT monitors to flatscreen LCD and LEDs, we’re constantly looking at our phones, computers, and televisions. According to the Vision Council, a trade group, 65% of Americans report eye strain related to overusing digital devices.

There’s even a name for this eye strain: Computer vision syndrome. The American Optometric Association uses computer vision syndrome as an umbrella term to describe a group of eye and vision-related problems resulting from prolonged computer, tablet, smartphone, and reader use. Sufferers experience eye discomfort and vision problems when looking at screens for long stretches. Generally speaking, the longer you stare at a screen, the worse the eyestrain is. In a 2016 survey, the Vision Council found that device-related eyestrain overwhelmingly shows up among users who spend more than five hours a day in front of televisions or computers.

Sydney Ziverts of ConsumerSafety, a watchdog group, notes that “Spending hours in front of a computer screen or any blue light can be a real strain on the eyes. Luckily, there are items available to help reduce strain and protect your vision.” Ziverts recommends using a combination of strain-reducing glasses, an anti-glare filter for monitors, and Google Chrome extensions that reduce the blue light which shows up on screen.

The Science Behind the Dry Eyes, And Headaches
Here’s the thing: Human eyes just aren’t made for staring at screens all day. No matter how intense workdays get, it just isn’t possible to sit in front of a laptop all day or play with a smartphone during a five-hour road trip and not get eyestrain.

The American Optometric Association recommends something they call the “20-20-20 rule.” Simply speaking, take a break every 20 minutes for 20 seconds to stare at something 20 feet away. That step, the AOA says, can sharply reduce eye strain.

A recent study also found evidence for a link between smartphone use and dry eyes. According to an article in BMC Ophthalmology, smartphone use serves as a risk factor for dry eye disease for users in certain locations and age groups. According to study authors Jun Hyung Moon, Kyoung Woo Kim and Nam Ju Moon, smartphone use in children was strongly associated with dry eye disease. However, they found something helpful: Spending times outdoors appeared to protect children from the disease.

Apps & Screen Protectors
While today’s monitors and screens cause less eyestrain than the bulky cathode ray tube monitors of the 90s, we’re staring at screens a lot more often. According to the Vision Council, nearly 60% of Americans use digital devices for more than five hours a day and 70% of them use two devices or more at a time. That digital overload frequently leads to eyestrain.

Several software creators have come up with solutions. Flux is a donationware cross-platform program that shifts the color temperature of a display according to the time of day. The company says that it “Makes your computer screen look like the room you’re in, all the time. When the sun sets, it makes your computer look like your indoor lights. In the morning, it makes things look like sunlight again.”

A number of Google Chrome plug-ins such as Screen Shader also work to reduce eye strain; many Android apps also have a “Night Mode” that reduces eye strain at night. Although, there isn’t currently an easily publicly accessible blue-light filtering night mode in Android, iOS features a “Night Shift” which switches to lighter colors at night.

Another popular solution dispenses with software to protect users with glasses. Eyezen and Gunnar Optiks produce eyeglasses and sunglasses that filter out blue light. Their prescription lenses integrate special filters designed to reduce eye strain from staring at digital devices over the day. In addition to prescription lenses, Gunnar also sells off-the-shelf eyewear intended for users with 20/20 or corrected vision; these glasses can be purchased online or from big box retailers.

Other anti-digital eye strain solutions can be purchased without a prescription as well. One popular solution is monitor shields and phone/tablet guards; manufacturers such as RetinaGuard and Illumishield create screen protectors designed to reduce blue light and glare across both desktop and portable devices.

Lights & Headaches
Although there’s a massive marketplace for software and hardware solutions to eyestrain, some of the best solutions are the simplest.

John Stewart, the vice president of SafeVision, a Missouri-based industrial eyewear company, recommends that anyone spending a lot of time in front screens get an eye exam and tell their optometrist how much time they’re spending in front of screens. “One of the most important factors is an occupational or task specific eye exam,” Stewart says. “The eye doctor must have some idea as to the distances and ergonomics of the workstation in order to provide a prescription adequate for the task.”

When eye doctors write prescriptions, Stewart adds, they’re designed for specific reading distances. But if your monitor is at a different distance in the workplace or you’re staring at a phone a few inches from your screen, it will create focusing issues that contribute to eyestrain.

Glare or blue light-reducing glasses and technology also work best as part of a package—in and of themselves, they’re great, but they work best when accompanied by other tools. The most important thing to do is to make sure home and office lighting isn’t exacerbating glare from smartphones, tablets, or computers. The Vision Council, for instance, recommends reducing overhead lighting in order to eliminate screen glare, sitting at arm’s distance away from a phone or tablet screen in order to ensure proper viewing distance, and increasing text size on devices in order to better define content on the screen. They also recommend that parents of gadget-loving teens and children make sure their kids take breaks from staring at their screen all day.

Maximize natural light in your home and office; the ideal setup to alleviate computer vision syndrome is a window perpendicular to your computer screen, but that’s not always possible. The angle of a screen should always be modified to reduce glare; extra light bouncing off a screen is an easy way to create eyestrain. In addition, Android and Apple smartphones and tablets have a wide array of settings that help reduce screen glare. iPhones and many Android phones, for instance, have smart brightness settings that automatically modify screen glare based on how well-lit or dark a room is.

Overheard lighting also causes glare: Sitting directly below a fluorescent light is one of the easiest ways to generate computer vision syndrome symptoms. If it isn’t possible to modify the lighting situation in a home or office, changing seating places or positions also offers benefits. Used in combination with glare- or blue light-reducing technology, these steps significantly reduce eyestrain from technology.

Let’s be realistic: Users aren’t going to give up their digital devices anytime soon. But at the same time, the phones and computers that bring power into our work lives and joy into our personal lives have an impact on our health. The baby steps of adjusting the brightness setting on a phone, changing the lighting scheme in a home office, or putting a screen shield of a tablet can vastly improve quality of life. We might live in a world of perpetual screen time, but that’s no reason to sacrifice vision.

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