How screens impact our eyes and what you can do to help yourself.
By Jason Upton
As Western moves to a majority online format amid COVID-19, second-year Western student Elena King is experiencing a new, but familiar issue: eye strain.
Prolonged exposure to a fixed object without moving the head contributes to eye strain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
King would begin to develop a headache after about an hour of looking at her computer, she said.
“I could feel it in my brain … it would feel fuzzy,” King said. “I think some people don’t realize that staring at a screen that long actually messes up your eyes, like you get a headache.”
King bought a pair of blue light glasses to combat the strain on her eyes. Blue light glasses filter out blue light emitted from digital screens and protect the user’s eyes from glare and retina damage.
The glasses make a noticeable difference, King said. Once she started wearing them at the computer, she noticed the absence of her usual headaches. In addition, it was a bit easier to get to sleep after wearing them, King said.
Blue light doesn’t necessarily damage the eye, but it causes a secretion of cortisol, said Dr. Hannah Joyner, an associate optometrist at Mount Baker Vision Clinic. Cortisol is a normal stress hormone that causes one to wake up in the morning and is also responsible for fight or flight response, Joyner said. The extra secretion of this hormone brought on by blue light causes people to stay up later at night and makes people more stressed, Joyner said.
Blue light glasses are effective, but the best way to combat eye strain is with additional power lenses, Joyner said. Additional power lenses utilize added magnifying power in the lower part of the glasses lens, helping with focus on closer-up objects. This type of lens takes pressure off the eye’s focusing system.
King said her belief in the harmful effect of screens on the eyes probed her to take other measures to ease eye strain. She prefers to take her notes on a notebook called a Rocketbook. Rocketbook is a reusable, physical notebook that has pages made to be easily scanned and transferred online with ink that can be simply wiped off with a rag. King also uses Ottlite, a natural light LED lamp made to utilize natural daylight and ease eye strain.
“Prolonged exposure to screens causes a lot of eye strain in the accommodative system,” Joyner said. “This system is responsible for making it so we can see clearly in the distance and then quickly see something up close, so when we are constantly focusing at a fixed near target, it makes the muscle have to constantly be clenched.”
Joyner said headaches from prolonged screen exposure stem from the eye muscles.
“People tend to get frontal headaches around the eye, their temples and their foreheads,” Joyner said. “That is from the muscle getting fatigued in the eye, and also has to do with the muscles that make your eye come together to see a target up close.”
Joyner emphasized that eye muscles are like any other muscle in the body; they get fatigued over prolonged periods of use. Joyner said the best way to ease this strain on the eyes is to use the 20/20/20 rule; take a break every 20 minutes and look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
“What that does is it just gives your eyes a break. It lets your muscles relax, just like you can shake your arms out or stretch your muscles,” Joyner said.
Joyner said she has seen an influx of young people coming in with eye problems in the last few months. A common problem she hears from them is computer-induced dry eye, which has an easy fix, Joyner said.
“Blinking is necessary to reset the tear layer on the eye, so without an adequate tear film, patients experience burning, grittiness and dryness,” Joyner said. “I suggest regular use of artificial tears with prolonged computer use to supplement the natural tears on the eye.”
Aran Clauson, a Senior Instructor for Western’s computer science department, said he hasn’t had as much of a problem with eye strain. The anti-glare coating on his glasses seems to have made a difference, but he’s never experienced big problems with eye strain or headaches, Clauson said.
Though screens are a key part of computer science studies, Clauson said that with the right gear, it’s not much more of a risk for eye strain. He stressed the importance of investing in high-quality equipment.
“If I were to give advice for a young software engineer heading out into the field, it’s that there are a couple places that you don’t want to cheap out, and a monitor is one of them,” Clauson said. “You want a nice, clean, crystal clear monitor to work with.”
Even after in-person classes resume, King still believes that she’ll wear her blue light glasses. She sees great importance in eye care considering how often she’s looking at a screen, King said.
Joyner said she believes that more people will get glasses due to the frequent headaches they get from not being aware of the strain they are putting on their eyes.
“It just worries me that people are going to get these problems with this eye strain, and they’re not walking around looking up and looking in the distance and letting their eyes relax,” Joyner said.“Now, it’s not only their education or their work that they’re staring at these screens, it’s now their social interactions too.”