Don’t Strain Yourself: A Closer Look into Digital Screens and Eye Care

Eyes fighting to read this? It’s time to widen your perspective on eye strain.

A typical day can be spent looking at a big screen, then a medium screen and finally shifting to the smaller one in our hands. If our devices could invent an eye condition, it would be called i-Strain, but they’re not the sole cause of it. Generally, you experience eye strain after prolonged periods of eye focus, like reading, driving, watching TV, knitting, and yes, working on a computer. After COVID-19, we now use our devices more than ever to clock in remotely. Now that we can carry our whole world and office in our hands, our reliance on technology has increased substantially—it’s taking its toll. A 2021 study found that not only did prolonged use of digital devices increase during lockdown, but so did reports of computer vision syndrome or digital eye strain.

The good news is that not only is eye strain common, but it’s often treatable. Here, we break down the different types of eye fatigue, their causes, how to treat them, and when to see your doctor.

What causes eye fatigue?

When we stare at something up close, the lens of the eye contracts. If you’re working on a presentation or catching up on emails, you’re most likely in a productivity rhythm—typing away, scanning the computer screen, dragging and dropping—which means that your eyes aren’t getting a break. Another consequence of intense focus is less blinking. Blinking replenishes the tears and lubricates the eyes. It also helps in making everything look crisp and sharp. Less blinking means more air in the eye and less moisture, causing that blurry effect.

What side effects and eye problems can hay allergies have on the eyes?

Sometimes environmental factors can play a role in eye strain too. If you have an undiagnosed or monitored refractive error (nearsightedness, farsightedness, astigmatism or presbyopia), then your eyes have to work harder to see and push through the discomfort, meaning they’ll tire out. If you’re working in a poorly lit or ventilated room, in front of a very bright screen or hunching towards it, chances are your eyes will feel the added strain.

• Eye irritation (burning or itching)
• Watery or dry eyes
• Fighting to keep your eyes open
• Blurred or double vision
• Mild headache
• Soreness in the neck, shoulders and back
• Difficulty concentrating or reading (decrease in reading speed)
• Light sensitivity
• Eye spasm or twitching

What is digital eye strain and what are its causes?

As you’ve now learned, eye strain occurs whenever the eyes focus for long periods of time. As we use more digital devices, a new kind of eye strain has emerged, known as digital eye strain or computer vision syndrome (CVS). According to the American Optometric Association, the people most likely to develop CVS are those “who spend two more continuous hours at a computer or using a digital screen device every day.”

Digital devices are fairly new technology—new to your eyes at least. Scanning a computer screen is very different from reading printed material or cross-country driving. For one thing, your eyes are dealing with pixels, glare, brightness, and reflections on the screen. The angle and viewing distance of a computer can be very different from that of a book or movie screen.

But screens aren’t always the culprit. In many cases, digital eye strain can occur if there are uncorrected vision problems or outdated eyeglass prescriptions. Sometimes, the angle of your monitor or laptop isn’t suited to your current prescription: if you find yourself hunching towards the screen, tilting your head at different angles, or experiencing neck pain, you may need to update your prescription.

You’ve probably heard your eye doctor discuss reading and distance corrections. The same applies to a computer distance prescription. This is why your doctor always asks you lifestyle questions during your eye exam: do you work with a desktop or a laptop, how far it is from you, and how much time you spend working on it each day. If you’re struggling to view the computer screen, your answers to these questions along with a refractive test will help your doctor provide the best prescription for you. This is why it’s important to stay on top of your eye exams and report any visual discomfort to your optometrist.

How do you relieve and prevent eye strain?

1. 20-20-20- Rule: For every 20 minutes that you use a digital device, take a 20-second break and look at objects 20 feet (6 meters) away. Again, if you’re focusing and forget to take breaks, you can set a timer for 20 minutes.

2. Blinking and eye drops: Remember to blink regularly. When you blink less, your eyes become dry. To reduce irritation and itching, you can try saline or “artificial tears” drops. You should especially do this if you wear contact lenses.

3. Redecorate: Make sure your screen or laptop is at arm’s length. Your screen should be at eye level or slightly below it.

4. Adjust your settings – This applies to the lighting in your work area (too dim or too bright), the light settings on your computer screen (glare), using a matte screen, or increasing the font size.

5. Eyewear: Make sure your glasses are appropriate for computer use. When your doctor asks lifestyle questions during your checkup, it’s important to mention if you work in front of a computer and for how long. Intermediate distance—the computer distance for a corrective lens—is not the same as a distance or reading prescription. The same goes for your contacts. You may also want to discuss certain lens coatings like anti-glare or blue light filter, and how they can help.

6. Work smart: Multitask correctly. Instead of moving from one computer task to the next, break up your screen time with phone calls, reading over printed material or other tasks.

Can you future-proof your eyes?

Technology, like the world, is changing. Just a few weeks ago, a new mixed reality headset was unveiled, where a headset will display your desktop in all around you. As the digital world begins to blend with the physical world, the question for many eyecare professionals is how this will affect our eyes in the long term. How will the eyes adapt or strain in these VR surroundings? The solution for now is to take care of your eyes and stay on top of your eye exams so you can adapt your prescription to your needs.