Written by: Alisa Nola, OD
In this digital age, almost every aspect of our lives is dependent on using some sort of electronic device, such as phones, tablets, e-readers, and computers. Textbooks and news are now accessed digitally and homework can be completed and submitted on the computer. Think about how many times a day (or even in an hour) you or a loved one uses an electronic screen to check messages, emails, appointments, or exciting news on social media.
According to a survey done by the Vision Council, 90% of Americans use digital devices for more than 2 hours a day. Furthermore, nearly 60% of Americans use digital devices for more than 5 or more hours a day.
With the increase of digital use and the switch from traditional incandescent lighting to compact fluorescent lights and light-emitting diodes, comes a rise in exposure to blue light. Blue light serves as an important role in the body such as maintaining circadian rhythm, improving alertness, and even treating cancerous cells; however, some types of blue light may be detrimental to the eyes and body. Digital devices have been known to emit high levels of short-wavelength blue light (also known as blue-violet light or harmful blue light), which has a negative impact on melatonin production. This in turn alters the natural circadian rhythm affecting adequate sleep. Recent studies have shown that blue light exposure before bedtime can negatively affect the quality of sleep. It is recommended that screens should not be viewed at least 2 hours before bedtime. Harmful blue light has also been found to penetrate deeper into the eye than other wavelengths. Long-term exposure has been linked to an increased risk of developing Age Related Macular Degeneration.
As teenagers and young adults spend much of their free time on their digital devices before bedtime and throughout the day, these behaviors can lead to lack of sleep, fatigue, and ultimately a decrease in overall function. In addition, physical eye discomfort (or digital eye strain) may arise after using digital devices after 2 or more hours. If a child has difficulty with attention, reading, or learning, overuse of electronic devices could be creating another barrier for success.
How can one bounce back from the bad blues? Keep reading below for some steps to healthier eyes and lifestyle.
1. The 20-20-20 Rule: Please try this at home – follow your finger all the way to your nose and keep it there for 10 seconds. How did your eyes feel? Was it difficult or easy? Did you want to stop looking after those 10 seconds? Of course one does not read or hold things up to his or her nose, but the eyes must work together similarly when reading a book or electronic screen within arm’s length. Headaches, eyestrain, fatigue, falling asleep when reading, and poor comprehension are just some of the symptoms from “overworking” one’s eyes during reading. A good rule of thumb for efficient breaks is for every 20 minutes, look away at a target that is about 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This will give the eye muscles a break and time to recover to allow for more comfortable and sustained reading.
2. Proper environment: Installing anti-glare screen covers for the computer can help reduce bothersome reflections. Anti-reflective coating on eyeglass lenses are also another beneficial option. Proper lighting around your device can make a big difference during studying or reading. Consider turning off any overhead fluorescent lighting and using a lamp with incandescent or halogen lighting. Ergonomic furniture is also an option that can improve functionality.
3. Posture: Ask any athlete, and they will likely state that form and posture is vital to performing well. When a tennis player prepares to serve, one foot must be placed in front of the other and appropriate weight must be shifted from the back foot to the front foot. The grip on the tennis racquet also makes a large difference to determine the type of spin to deliver the ball. Similarly, form and posture is also very important when using electronic devices. Both feet should be on the ground, the back in upright position, and the head should be straight (no tilt, angle, or movement forward). The device or screen should be at Harmon’s distance (this is equal to holding the middle knuckle to the eye and to the elbow at the material). Computer screens should be 10-15 degrees below the eyes and 20-24 inches away. Holding a phone closer to the recommended distance or having a screen too high or low may cause eye strain, neck strain, and back problems.
4. Moderation: Electronics are important to our everyday life and function, and it must be used in moderation. How much is too much? The better question is, how little is enough? When any part of your body starts to feel uncomfortable, due to screen time posture, that is usually a sign that it is time to be off the device. Setting a timer during screen use can be a helpful reminder that it is time for a rest. Scheduling a time for allowed screen time can help manage and monitor use. For example, tablets can be used for 1 hour in the evening at 6pm. Finding other hobbies such as art, reading, or outdoor activities can also be an alternative to using the screen.
5. Remember to Blink: There have been research studies that have seen a reduced rate of blinking when using an electronic device (approximately one-third less than natural blinking). Blinking is an important natural reflex to keep the eyes moist and comfortable. Consciously telling your eyes to blink at least 10 times every 5-10 minutes will help reduce any discomfort.
6. Blue light blockers: Specialty lenses can be purchased for those who want an added protection from harmful blue light. Eyezen by Essilor or Prevencia by Crizal are specific types of lenses that can reduce exposure of harmful blue light by 20%. Consult with your local optician for more details on these specialized lenses. Filters or overlays can also be placed on tablets, phones, and computer screens to further reduce the harmful blue light exposure every time those devices are used. F.lux is an application that can be downloaded on the computer or iPad. The program automatically adjusts the computer display to blend with the surrounding light, creating a more comfortable viewing experience. Similar to f.lux, Apple iOS 9.3 has a feature called Night Shift to adjust the screen color to a warmer tone when it is sunset. Apple claims that the night mode makes viewing easier for the eyes. In the morning it returns to the regular display setting.
7. Time for the annual comprehensive eye exam: A comprehensive eye exam that screens for eye diseases, functional problems, and developmental vision problems is crucial. In addition to checking for the need for glasses and looking at eye health, an assessment for eye focusing, eye teaming, and eye movement ability ensures that an individual is seeing clearly and comfortably during all tasks. Not all optometrists provide these in-depth evaluations and treatment. Locate an optometrist who is a member of the College of Optometrist in Vision Development at COVD.org for the next step to better vision.