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Avert your eyes in the name of ocular health

Students spend many hours a day using screens and may risk eye strain. // Illustration by Rachel Alexander


By Christopher O’Neill

Put. The phone. Down...unless you’re using it to read this article, in which case, please continue to read.

Digital eye strain, a condition associated with excessive screen time, can lead to eye strain, headaches, blurred vision, dry eyes and neck and shoulder pain. The American Optometric Association cautions that if not addressed, some symptoms, such as blurred vision, can worsen over time, even becoming permanent. 

The average American spent 10.5 hours a day on media before social distancing went into effect, according to a 2018 report by Nielsen, a media measurement company. The report stated adults 18-34 spent one-third of that time on their smartphones. 

I don’t know about you, but my screen time could likely be measured more easily by how much time I don’t look at a screen. Between video meetings, social media, texting and binge-watching the latest show on my favorite streaming service, I probably have those numbers beat.                      

Unfortunately, this is not something to be proud of, which I learned from Glenn Green, an optometrist who owns Bellingham Family Eye Clinic.

“People are probably getting [digital eye strain] and not realizing what it is because they don’t track the amount of time they’re viewing a screen,” Green said. “If there is some kind of discomfort, you should get an eye exam.”

Green explained that digital eye strain is a general term for the symptoms associated with digital screen time rather than a specific disease; proper care is based on the needs of each individual case. 

Green’s cautions are echoed on the American Optometric Association website, where a slew of potential causes are listed for digital eye strain, including “poor lighting, glare on a digital screen, improper viewing distances, poor seating posture, uncorrected vision problems,” or all of the above.

Another concern, according to the American Optometric Association, is the amount of blue light, or high-energy wavelengths of light between 420 and 480 nanometers on the visible light spectrum, present within digital screens. Blue light stimulates specific receptors in our eyes that regulate melatonin, the hormone that tells us when to sleep. According to the association, prolonged exposure can disrupt waking and sleeping cycles.  

Glasses that filter blue light have been an option to mitigate these effects, but users may experience mixed results. According to a 2014 article published in Life Science Journal, the use of blue light filters is inconclusive. The paper warns that using them too much could be equally disruptive to sleeping patterns.

Yulisa Fernandez, a second-year student at Western studying Spanish and education, uses blue-light filters on her glasses.

“When I came to the U.S. and I got my first phone and computer, my vision started having problems,” Fernandez said. “I have glasses especially for the computer.”

Fernandez also uses the light filter options on her phone and computer to reduce her discomfort when viewing at night.

Ian Simpson, an electrician and resident of Blaine, said he had concerns with how much time his four children spend using digital screens.

 “If they’re on YouTube, and they’ve been on it for a while, I would definitely kick them off,” Simpson said. “But it’s hard to kick them off if they’re doing schoolwork.”

Simpson estimates that his children spend two to three hours a day at a digital screen doing schoolwork. Simpson also said his children most likely double that time afterwards using social media.

“There has to be a physical effect, they’re not out doing something or using their bodies,” Simpson said.

The good news is there are general practices that everyone can do in order to avoid digital eye strain. The American Optometric Association recommends keeping your computer screen 4 or 5 inches below eye level and roughly 20 to 28 inches from the eyes. They also recommend maintaining a proper seating position, where chair height is adjusted to allow feet to rest flat on the floor in order to correct posture. 

There’s also blinking. It sounds obvious, but you may be surprised at how much an autonomous response can be thrown off by a captivating meme.

If that’s too much to do, just remember the 20, 20, 20 rule.

“Every 20 minutes, they recommend taking 20 seconds to look at something 20 feet away or beyond,” Green said. According to Green, the change allows your eyes to stretch so they don’t get cramped into one focal position, potentially causing blurry vision.

And, do your eyes a favor and get regular eye exams. The American Optometric Association recommends checkups annually if not bi-annually.

Now, take a moment to look up from your computer screen and enjoy the view outside. Your eyes will thank you later.

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