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There’s no avoiding it: screen time has become a big part of our daily lives. We use smartphones and tablets for work, school, and entertainment. Devices even help us shop and socialize. And to make matters worse, we’re using them more than ever before.

According to a recent study, screen time increased across all age groups during the COVID-19 pandemic. Children, from ages 6 to 10, recorded the biggest uptick in screen usage — clocking in an extra 83 minutes a day on average. Adults and adolescents followed with daily increases of 58 and 55 minutes, respectively.

You’re probably already mindful of how too much screen time can interfere with physical activity and sleep quality. But did you know being glued to your computer or phone can also impact your eye health? Summit Health ophthalmologists Ava Huchun, MD, and Vinnie Shah, MD, discuss how excessive screen time can affect your vision and what steps you can take to make sure your eyes stay healthy.

Screen time’s toll on the eyes

The prolonged use of screens without breaks can cause some uncomfortable side effects. This combination of symptoms is sometimes referred to as computer vision syndrome and may include:

  • Eye fatigue (asthenopia). The muscles around our eyes can get tired when they focus at the same distance for a long time, whether on screens, writing, or other types of “near work.” Symptoms of eye fatigue include eye discomfort, temporary blurred or double vision, and headaches.
  • Dry, irritated eyes. “When you read or look at a screen, you don’t blink as much because you’re trying to absorb the information,” says Dr. Huchun. We generally blink about 15 times a minute, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). But when we are concentrating on a screen, studies show that lowers to only 5 to 7 times a minute. Not blinking enough prevents the eye’s surface from getting the moisture it needs.
  • Nearsightedness (myopia). A definitive link between screen time and nearsightedness has yet to be established. But Dr. Huchun says some experts are concerned that near work is driving a global epidemic of myopia — a condition that causes faraway objects to look blurry. A National Eye Institute report states that about 42 percent of Americans have myopia — up from 25 percent in 1971. Several studies have also drawn a link between near work and myopia in children.

Healthy eye habits: tips to follow

The bottom line is we live in a digital world. So, removing screens altogether isn’t much of an option.

Most people are not cutting screen time out completely for their children, but parents and caregivers should consider decreasing its use for relaxation or fun outside of school. Instead of letting your child sit alone with their tablet, try watching a movie as a family on a TV. This increases the distance of their eyes from the screen, limits the amount of screen time, and makes the screen time a social experience rather than an isolating one.

Here are ways you and your family can protect your eyes.

  • Take “20-20-20” breaks. It’s easy to lose track of time when you’re concentrating. Experts advise practicing the rule of 20s. This means for every 20 minutes of focused work; you should look at something 20 feet away for a period of 20 seconds. Using a timekeeper, such as a kitchen timer or paper clips spaced between book chapters, can help remind you when to take a break. Dr. Huchun tells her patients to find a window and look at something far in the distance, if possible. During this eye break, also take a moment to relax your neck and shoulder muscles.
  • Optimize your environment. Ergonomics is all about making your workspace work for you. These tips can go a long way when trying to prevent eye strain.
    • Distance – Some experts suggest positioning devices using the “1-2-10” rule: 1 foot away for smartphones, 2 feet for laptops and desktops, and 10 feet for TVs.
    • Posture – Choose seating that supports your spinal curves and promotes good posture. Set up laptops and desktops at eye level and directly in front of the body.
    • Lighting – Avoid using screens outside or in brightly lit rooms, where glare can contribute to eye strain. When using light sources, position them behind you instead of behind your screen. Adjust your device’s brightness and contrast settings to a comfortable level.
    • Eye care products – Your provider may recommend prescription glasses specifically for computer work or lenses that help you shift focus between distances. Other helpful products can include preservative-free artificial tears to prevent dry eyes and a matte screen filter to reduce glare.
  • Limit screens one hour before bedtime. In addition to content like games and movies potentially making it harder to wind down at night, the brightness and blue light emitted by screens can be problematic. When using screens in dark rooms, your pupils expand to accommodate the darkness. Screen brightness can aggravate afterimages — the images that linger in your vision after you’ve been exposed to them — and cause discomfort. And research shows that blue light, also found in sunlight, disrupts our normal sleep-wake rhythm.
  • Go outside. “The hardest yet most important thing is to take a break,” says Dr. Huchun. She encourages families to put down their devices and go outside, where everyone’s eyes can benefit from the full spectrum of sunlight and the chance to focus on different distances.
  • Make eye care part of your health care. Regular eye exams can help detect and treat problems early and support your overall vision health. Summit Health’s ophthalmology team breaks down eye exam frequency by age group for quick reference.