Eyes feeling fatigued? Screen time could be to blame


The more time we spend on electronic devices, the more stress and strain we put on our eyes.

And optometrists are seeing the effects of this — called digital eye strain — walk through their office doors.

“We’re seeing a lot of that, especially in the late-teenager to mid-30s age group,” said Taylor Hoffman, an optometrist at Professional Eyewear Associates and Eyewear Designs. He and his colleagues have offices in Huntingburg and Jasper.

“Because they are on devices so much,” he said, “we are finding a lot of the strain on the muscle inside the eye is directly related to looking at screens all day.”

Digital eye strain is any strain that is put on the eye from digital devices. And society has a lot of time and a lot of devices to cause this phenomena.

According to studies done by market-research group Nielsen, most adults spend most of their waking hours looking at screens. For the first quarter of this year, adults spent an average of 11 hours and 6 minutes interacting with media. Almost two hours of that was using radios; the rest was interacting with more visual devices — televisions, computers, game consoles, computers, smartphones, tablets and other internet-connected devices. Four years ago, the average was nine hours and 32 minutes.

Looking at devices constantly “fatigues the muscles inside your eye that help you bring your focus from distance to up close,” Hoffman said. “Symptoms would be a dryness in the eye, discomfort around the eyes, and blurred vision when you look up from those devices or blurred vision on those devices after sustained use.”

Hoffman said he and his fellow optometrists have seen an increase in the number of young people coming in with digital eye strain.

“Definitely with kids who are getting into elementary school,” he said. “A lot of them are using chromebooks and tablets at school. We’re seeing a big increase in the number of young patients coming in with those symptoms of fatigue and strain and dryness.”

As for toddlers, “the kids that aren’t in school yet, they aren’t having much of a problem,” Hoffman said. “Yes, they are on screens more. And I think that has an effect on the sleep/awake cycle.”

A screen’s blue light is the culprit.

“All devices give off a blue light,” Hoffman said. “The studies show that can affect your circadian rhythm, your sleep/awake cycle, and can cause some issues there.”

The problem with looking at the blue light is that the brain treats it the same as viewing a sunny day.

“The sun gives off blue light. That’s why (a screen’s blue light) messes with your sleep/awake cycle,” Hoffman said. “If you are looking at blue light at 11 o’clock at night, your brain thinks that it’s still daytime, and you might not be able to fall asleep.”

Doctors have methods to treat digital eye strain, depending on the patient’s circumstances, either with an eye lubricant or prescription glasses.

“Some patients benefit from anti-fatigue lenses. Those are lenses that help the muscles in the eye out a little bit and kind of relieve that fatigue, especially if they are looking at a computer or tablet all day,” Hoffman said. “We often will give anti-reflecting coatings on lenses, or even lenses that block blue light.”

Studies are currently being done to determine if this long-term exposure does any permanent damage to the eye. “We haven’t done any studies on that yet, because we just kind of figured it out that these devices are giving off blue light just in the last 10 or 15 years of people using devices constantly,” Hoffman said. “So the future will tell us if there are health risks.”

People can do things to deter digital eye strain from happening, the optometrist said.

“The use of lubricating drops while you’re on a screen for long term is beneficial,” he said.

People should also use what doctors call the 20-20-20 rule. “Every 20 minutes you are on a device, you should put it down, and for 20 seconds you should look at least 20 feet away,” Hoffman said. “You should look out the window, or something like that. That gives that muscle in the eye time to relax and reset.”

He also suggested enacting a feature on electronic devices that cuts down the device’s blue light or makes the screen give off a light that is not as bright as the blue light.

“With my cellphone,” Hoffman said, “when it is sunset, it turns off my blue light, so that my brain doesn’t think it’s still daytime.”

The best thing we can do is put down our devices — or at least take frequent breaks from looking at them.

“That would be best,” Hoffman said.

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