What the rise of technology means for our health
If you spend just two hours a day looking at screens, your eyes could be exposed to enough blue light to cause digital eye strain.
Dr. Dora Adamopoulos, a VSP network doctor in Alexandria, Virginia, says her patients often describe the same symptoms: dry, irritated eyes, headaches, blurry vision. They blame everything from their desk chair to the fact that pollen season is coming early.
“Then I ask them, ‘How many screens are you looking at every day?’” says Adamopoulos. “They say two or three. And then they have their phone at their desk. And they’re using them most of the day at work, and then more at night at home.”
She asks the patients if they’re taking screen breaks, or if they know that we all blink less when looking at screens (which they usually don’t). That’s when she tells them the name for what they are experiencing: digital eyestrain, which is associated with excessive use of technology and exposure to blue light for two or more hours.
We see blue light every day, and it’s not inherently harmful; it’s why the sky looks blue. But it’s at the end of the spectrum that ultimately crosses into ultraviolet rays we can’t see—the kind of light we need sunglasses to filter. When we’re looking at blue light constantly, for long periods of time, damage to our retinas can accumulate. Too many of us spend entire workdays staring at screens beneath energy-efficient lightbulbs, which emit more blue light than their incandescent predecessors. Then we go home, turn on a flat-screen TV, and open our laptop on the sofa with a smartphone in hand. Americans on average spend more than 10.5 hours a day looking at screens, and the Vision Council says that just two hours is enough to invoke symptoms of digital eyestrain. This series of events is an unavoidable reality today—but what does the digital age mean for our eyes?
“What I’m seeing is people 18 to 25 years old complaining of symptoms that I used to see in patients in their late 30s and 40s,” Adamopoulos says, adding that today’s children are at particular risk of cumulative exposure. If you’re 45, she says, you likely didn’t stare at screens throughout your childhood, while today’s kids start when they’re two or three.
According to Vision Council research, digital eyestrain has surpassed carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis as the leading computer-related repetitive strain injury for American workers. About 65 percent of Americans experience symptoms of digital eyestrain, but almost 70 percent don’t think to discuss screen time with their eye doctors. And nearly 75 percent of people surveyed didn’t know that blue-light-filtering eyewear—one of the only ways to defend against blue light exposure—is available.
Glasses with traditional anti-reflective lens treatments help prevent glare, but don’t filter blue light. Consumers need lenses that, ideally, provide a combination of blue-light absorption and blue-light reflection. Such lenses can be ordered with blue light filtering coatings. While “computer eyewear” used to have a yellow-orange tint that only techno-geeks embraced, new technology makes these coatings almost clear.
“Manufacturers are making different lenses with coatings to help with the amount of blue light that you want blocked out,” Adamopoulos says.
There’s also VSP Optics Group’s TechShield Blue, an economical anti-reflective (AR) coating that can be added to any pair of eyeglass lenses, targeting and filtering out the highest-energy blue light before it reaches the eyes. Digital eye strain has become such a pressing health issue that a growing number of vision insurance plans and employers are accounting for it: VSP Vision Care can tailor a coverage plan specifically for employees who spend the majority of their time on computers, which includes wide access to AR coatings.
In addition to having proper eyewear that helps filter out blue light and scheduling regular checkups, the American Optometric Association and Vision Council recommend a few basic practices: Turn off all screens at least an hour before bedtime. Consider a glare filter or adjust your device settings to reduce the amount of blue light—yes, there are apps for filtering blue light, including f.lux for Mac users, NightShift for iPhones, and Twilight for Android devices.
And no matter what devices you use, experts recommend following the 20-20-20 rule, which means taking a 20-second break from screens every 20 minutes to focus on something 20 feet away. Adamopoulos urges patients to set reminders, so their devices tell them when to look up. These are simple, everyday measures—but they could help keep eyes healthy in an ever-digitizing time.