By Michael Cusick, M.D.
Many of us are aware of our increased screen time over the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Between computers, tablets, smartphones, and television, the average screen time per person rose 60% to more than 13 hours a day in March 2020. This increase in screen time has led to an increase in complaints of eye strain, dry eye, headaches and insomnia. The University of Virginia Department of Ophthalmology and the American Academy of Ophthalmology are offering tips to workers, parents, and students whose eyes may need relief from too much screen time.
Why does screen time strain the eyes more than reading print material? Mainly because people tend to blink less while looking at a screen. Focusing the eyes on computer screens or other digital displays has been shown to reduce a person’s blink rate by a third to a half, which tends to dry out the eyes. We also tend to view digital devices at less than ideal distances or angles.
To reduce the symptoms caused by excessive screen time, try altering your environment with these simple tips:
• Keep your distance: The eyes actually have to work harder to see close up than far away. Try keeping the monitor or screen at arm’s length, about 25 inches away. Position the screen so your eye gaze is slightly downward.
• Reduce glare: Glass screens can produce glare that can aggravate the eye. Try using a matte screen filter.
• Adjust lighting: If a screen is much brighter than the surrounding light, your eyes have to work harder to see. Adjust your room lighting and try increasing the contrast on your screen to reduce eye strain.
• Give your eyes a break: Remember to blink and follow the 20-20-20 rule. Take a break every 20 minutes by looking at an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Looking into the distance allows your eyes to relax.
• Keep eyes moist: Keep artificial tears at hand to help lubricate your eyes when they feel dry. Consider using a desktop humidifier. Office buildings have humidity-controlled environments that suck moisture out of the air. In winter, heaters on high can further dry your eyes.
• Stop using devices before bed: There is evidence that blue light may affect the body’s circadian rhythm, our natural wake and sleep cycle. During the day, blue light wakes us up and stimulates our brains. Too much blue light exposure late at night from your phone or other devices may make it harder to fall asleep. Therefore, limit screen time one to two hours before bedtime. Use nighttime settings on devices and computers that minimize blue light exposure.
The symptoms caused by increased screen time can be extremely frustrating, but often resolve when you rest your eyes and take steps to improve your environment. Those experiencing consistently dry red eyes or eye pain should visit an eye care professional who can perform a thorough eye examination.