The Dark Days of Winter:
How Increased Screen Time Affects Visual Health
If you’re like many people, when it’s freezing outside and the sun sets before 5:00pm you just want to snuggle up indoors, binge on Netflix, and scroll through your smartphone until it’s time for bed. When it’s cold and dark out, indoor activities – which often involve digital devices such as computers, smartphones, and tablets – tend to take precedence. But what is all this “screen time” doing to our eyes?
With the prevalence of technology use by people of all ages, digital eye strain is becoming a significant concern in the optometric community as well as a growing public health concern overall. Cases of dry eye, blurred vision, eye fatigue, neck and back pain and headaches are on the rise, and are associated with our ever-increasing use of devices as well as indoor light sources such as LED light bulbs, which all emit High-Energy Visible (HEV) blue light. In addition to the physical discomforts listed above, there is a growing body of clinical evidence suggesting that this blue light may also cause damage to the eye in the long term.
Other effects of increased exposure to blue light include sleep disruption: lower-energy blue light is beneficial to the eye in proper doses during the day, but when the eye receives too much blue light at night in the hours before bedtime, this can cause not enough melatonin (the hormone that signals it’s time for sleep) to be produced. Even moderate nighttime device usage – including pillowside social media scrolling, late-night online shopping, and “catching up on work emails” – can disrupt one’s circadian rhythm.
How To Ease the Strain
Research on the long-term effects of blue light exposure is ongoing, but as many eye care professionals have acknowledged, this is a growing issue positioned to become more serious as digital device use increases among the population. With hours spent in front of screens hitting double digits, people of all ages are advised to see their eye doctor regularly (once every 1-2 years depending on age, vision correction needs, health history and other risk factors) for a comprehensive eye exam to check both vision and eye health, and to discuss how to mitigate the effects of daily technology use on the eyes.
Eye care providers can prescribe eyewear with “blue defense” lenses that cut down on glare and filter out the harmful blue light rays emitted from devices; children, whose eyes’ crystalline lenses are still developing, would especially benefit from eye protection. It is also important to modify daily habits when using devices, and the easy-to-remember 20/20/20 Rule is a great place to start: every 20 minutes, look away from the screen for at least 20 seconds, at an object 20 feet away. Also, be mindful of blinking – when you’re staring at a screen, blink rates drop, contributing to dry, red eyes. See the infographic below for more tips.
The times, they are a’changing - and changing fast. Our lives are become increasingly more “connected,” as countertop iPads replace cookbooks, novels are swapped for e-readers, and classroom chalkboards go the way of the 8-track. Today’s children are as savvy with a tablet as they are with Legos, if not more so – rendering proper eye care and protection crucial to prevent current and future generations from suffering the effects of digital eye strain, and potentially more serious conditions.