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The Low-Down on Digital Eyestrain

eye strain cvs man sore eyes

As our digital world expands, we are spending more and moretime glued to our electronic devices, and not surprisingly,Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS) or digital eye strain is on therise. Recent data presented by Kleiner Perkins indicates that,on average, Canadians spend just under 400 minutes per day on electronic devices (two hours being on our smartphones),with one in ten people spending 75% of their waking hours on devices. Approximately 65% of North Americans report symptoms of digital eye strain, with other common related symptoms being headaches, blurred vision, dry eyes and neck and shoulder pain.

Viewing a digital screen often makes eyes work harder. In some cases, the letters on the digital device might not be as sharply defined as on a printed page, the contrast might be too low or there might be too much glare. We also tend to blink 50% less, which can contribute to or worsen pre-existing, dry eye symptoms. As we strain to see details, over time our facial, neck and shoulder muscles can tighten and, in many cases, our poor posture and repetitive movements create musculoskeletal discomfort. In essence, CVS occurs because the demands of the task exceed our abilities, with the risk increasing greatly at two or more hours per day of usage. Our kids are being raised with technology and digital devices integrated into their everyday lives more than any generation before them. With Chromebook use at school and in many cases hours of use once they get home, it is estimated that 65% of children and teens spend two or more hours per day on digital devices. This puts them at risk for not only CVS but now we believe increasing myopia (near sightedness). The prevalence of nearsightedness among North Americans is estimated to have increased over 60% in the last 30 years, and more and more research points towards increasing near work and less time spent outdoors in natural light as being partially responsible. Digital devices can have great value for our kids, but it is important that, as parents, we are aware that they can experience vision problems as well. Kids can also be less self aware of keeping track of the hours they spend on devices or may ignore problems such as glare or neck strain while engrossed playing a video game or watching a show. Luckily there are many strategies and products that can reduce digital eye strain for kids and adults alike.

The first step towards eye-friendly computer use is to have a comprehensive, annual eye examination. That’s because uncorrected vision problems like far sightedness, astigmatism, poor eye focusing or eye coordination abilities can contribute to the development of CVS. In many cases, even the presence of minor vision problems can significantly affect comfort and performance on a digital device, especially over time. Controlling lighting is also very important, both from the display itself and from light sources around you. Glare from nearby windows or from overhead lights make your eyes work harder, so try turning off some surrounding lights or closing the blinds when possible. Ideally your monitor should be about the same brightness as the light around you. You can also try reducing the color temperature of your monitor (to warmer color tones) since blue light scatters more easily in the eye then other visible light, contributing to eye strain. Alternately, try installing an app called f.lux that automatically adjusts your screens color temperature for you ( Help make your workspace easy on your eyes by keeping your screen arm’s-length away (20–28 inches) and keeping the screen center 15–20 degrees (about 5 inches) below eye height. Your eyes can focus and coordinate on near objects slightly better in down gaze, and it can help with neck and back strain as well. For kids, make sure the computer is adjusted for their body size. Try taking breaks and looking away from the computer for20 seconds every 20 minutes. If possible, take longer five-minute breaks every two hours looking at something at least 20 ft away to reduce focusing strain. Reduced blinking can also make your eyes feel more irritated and strained, so try adding in 10 slow blinks after each break if needed. Additionally, encourage kids to limit their sedentary tasks with digital media to less than two hours a day, and spend some time educating them to respond to any discomfort they experience when using digital devices by taking breaks and seeking care if symptoms persist.

Like many things, moderation is the key. Remember: CVS should be temporary, so if vision for yourself or your child is not returning to normal, book an appointment and share your concerns. Another option is to consider trying computer glasses. In many cases, glasses and contacts prescribed for regular use may not suffice for extended digital device use. As optometrists, we now have new lens designs and coatings/filters that actually help reduce eye strain and allow you to work longer and more efficiently on your devices, even if you do not wear glasses otherwise. As a closing topic, I want to touch on nighttime device usage. For many of us, unwinding from our day does not mean unplugging from technology. In fact, recent studies indicate that about 75% of us look at our devices in the hour before bed.  High energy visible light (HEV) or blue light emitted from our devices is very effective at suppressing the sleep hormone melatonin and shifting production towards cortisol (a stress hormone), which can negatively affect our sleep. This can be especially detrimental to our kids whom tend to need more sleep then we do, so try avoiding device usage in the hours before bed. Alternately, we can now make digital lenses that block a portion of the blue light and we can warm the color temperatures of our devices, minimizing their effects. Digital devices are part of our lives and are here to stay. With a bit of knowledge and some strategies for use, we can both enjoy and be productive with them, even the small screens, without any of the big vision problems. If you have any questions or concerns, we are here to help. I look forward to hearing from you.

Dr. Peter Roed