With the average American spending over 7 hours looking at a screen each day, cases of dry and irritated eyes are becoming more common. More people are spending more hours overstraining their eye muscles and risking complications that can cost them their vision. While the science around blue light damage is still developing, if nothing else, we’re wearing our eyes to the bone — or socket — in a way the human body has never experienced before.
An estimated 14 million Americans are already visually impaired, but whenever I ask people, “What good things do you do for your eyes?” most can’t answer the question. They don’t even know there’s anything good they can do. With so much screen time only bound to increase for more people, and known and unknown health effects on our eyes already causing concern, it’s time we found a better answer to that question and learned to do some good things for our eyes.
What We Know
Although the rising screen time phenomenon is new and still being studied, we can speak confidently about some things happening to our eyes. Anyone who has sat staring at a screen all day has likely felt dry, irritated, and fatigued eyes – a confirmed side effect of extended screen time. Science had already made this link long before COVID-19, but researchers now expect cases to rise exponentially along with device use. They found dry eyes could be painful, and people suffering them experience higher rates of depression and even suicide. But they also found less screen time automatically helped reverse the symptoms and more time outside indicated signs of protection against it.
While it may take more time for unknown effects to surface, we know that blue light can disrupt sleep and disturb the circadian rhythm — all bad news for work performance and health. Poor sleep can result in daytime fatigue, moodiness, impaired memory, and alertness; in the long-term, it can cause depression, poor immune function, and an increased risk for chronic illness. To prevent this disruption, we can avoid using our devices in the hours before bed, or if necessary, use them in night mode or while wearing blue-light blocking glasses, and still reap the benefits of a good night’s sleep.
What We May Not Need to Worry About
While some research has raised the alarm about blue light damage to the eyes, the average person may not have too much to worry about. Blue light has more energy per photon than other visible colors. Studies have shown that blue light increases reactive oxygen species activity in the skin and eyes and can cause oxidative damage to those cells. White LED light emits more blue light than traditional sources, and most modern devices rely on LED screens, which often have white backlit displays that produce higher amounts of blue light. Despite all this, scientists have determined that the amount of blue light emitted from consumer electronics isn’t harmful enough to cause permanent retinal damage and even retail lighting or the sun emits stronger blue waves.
Some people, however, might be more interested in protecting against the potential dangers of blue light. Damage to the light-sensitive macula at the back of the eye can reduce central vision and lead to age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of vision loss for aging adults. The National Eye Institute’s Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) and a follow-up (AREDS2) determined that vitamin supplement formulas, including the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, delayed the progression of AMD in people already in intermediate or late stages of the disease. Previous studies also suggested that people who eat diets high in leafy green vegetables and other sources of these antioxidants had a lower risk of developing AMD. Not everyone needs to worry about blue light damage, but if you’re like me, among the 41% of Americans already myopic (nearsighted) and at a higher risk for macular degeneration, maybe some AREDS2 vitamins, blue-light blockers, and salads for dinner aren’t such a bad idea.
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What We Can Do to Prevent More Damage
If the established problems with more screen time are an excessive strain on our eyes and working them dry, we should seek to decrease their workload and keep them moisturized. Most of the time, dry eyes and irritation occur because we stare too long at our screens without blinking, so use the 20-20-20 rule as a reminder. Every 20 minutes, remind yourself to look at a distance 20 feet away for 20 seconds to reduce eye strain and be more mindful about blinking to remoisturize the eyes. Eye drops, or artificial tears, also reduce strain by keeping your eyes lubricated during extended screen time, and reliable brands are easy to find at your neighborhood pharmacy.
Another way to reduce eye strain is to rethink how you use your glasses. Prescription lenses for far or near distances don’t really cover the intermediate zone in between, and many of us are guilty of using the same lenses for our screens that often fall in that zone. You can ask your eye doctor if they think computer glasses or blue light filters for screen time might reduce stress on your eyes. Or, if your prescription is light, take off your glasses and see if you feel less eye pressure or headaches when you look at a screen and consider trying to do your work without them. However, if trying to see the screen without glasses is causing your eyes more strain, keep them on — the idea is to reduce unnecessary muscular exertion, not cause more.
Our eyes and brains are a team — 95% of all cognitive information is perceived through sight — so it makes sense that eye health should be prioritized just as highly as brain health. Stress at work can worsen employees’ dry eye syndrome. One recent study found that the more severe the case, the greater the individual’s absenteeism and activity impairment, negatively impacting productivity. Our eyes are already susceptible to weakening with age, and the added strain from screen time is unlikely to do anything to help. Instead, update your routine to match your screen time so the next time someone asks you what you do to take care of your eyes, you have a good answer.