To say the world has gone digital would be an understatement. From working to shopping, many daily tasks are now performed on computers, smartphones, and tablets. A 2018 study of 2,000 Americans showed that the average person spends nearly seven hours per day looking at a screen1. For those who get an average of eight hours of sleep a night, that means they spend almost half of their waking hours looking at a screen.
And that study was done well before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced many people to work from home and stay inside to binge-watch their favorite shows during their free time. While this challenging period has demonstrated the flexibility technology provides, it’s also a good time to be mindful of your screen time and how prolonged use can adversely affect your vision.
How screens can affect your eyes
There’s not much evidence that screen use causes permanent damage to your eyes2. However, when you stare at one for long stretches of time every day, you can develop computer vision syndrome, also called digital eyestrain. Researchers estimate that at least 50% of computer users experience it3. Digital eyestrain can include a variety of symptoms, including2,4:
- Sore, itching, burning, dry, or watery eyes
- Blurred or double vision
- Light sensitivity
- Difficulty keeping the eyes open
- Sore shoulders, back, or neck
These problems aren’t necessarily caused by screens themselves. The eyes, like any muscle in the body, can get strained with constant use. Simply focusing on one object for too long can strain your eyes as well as cause muscle tension in your neck, shoulders, and back, especially if your posture is poor5. However, glare, brightness, and contrast from screens can cause eyestrain, too6. Some symptoms, such as dryness and blurriness, can occur because you blink about half as much as normal when reading or working on a screen7, depriving the eyes of necessary lubrication.
Blue light, which you’re exposed to when using your phone or computer, is commonly cited as damaging to the eyes8. However, there are conflicting findings about the theory. The American Academy of Ophthalmology says there is no scientific evidence showing that blue light causes permanent eye damage9.
Tips for alleviating digital eyestrain at home
Even if you can’t avoid looking at a screen for a large portion of your day, there are ways to do so safely!
Adopt the 20-20-20 rule
Taking a break from your screen every so often can be a huge relief for your eyes. As tempting as it may be, avoid moving from one screen to another and looking at your phone during your work breaks, as 53% of people said they do in a study performed by CooperVision1.
Following the 20-20-20 rule10 can give your eyes a much-needed break throughout the day. It’s easy to remember and even easier to do: every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break to look at something at least 20 feet away. Focusing on something further away can relax your eyes after they’ve worked hard to focus on a much closer object. Think of it like taking a break between reps while lifting weights to help your muscles relax for a bit.
Don’t think you’ll remember to do this every 20 minutes? Just set a reminder on your phone! And if you’re not sure how far away 20 feet is, looking at something out a nearby window is a safe bet.
Position the screen correctly
Looking at objects up close strains the eyes, and so does trying to focus on small things far away. Ideally, you want your screens close enough to see clearly but far enough away that they don’t cause strain. Your phone screen is smaller than your computer screen and can, thus, be held a bit closer to your eyes — about 20 inches away is recommended11. Your computer screen should, of course, be further away. The AAO recommends sitting an arm’s length away from your laptop or desktop screen12. That said, there’s no distance perfect for everyone — you may need to try a few different positions before finding what’s comfortable for you.
Additionally, position the screen so that you’re looking slightly downward. This is a natural resting position for the eyes13. Staring straight ahead or upward forces the eye muscles to work harder and can lead to strain over time. It can also cause you to strain your neck, which not only causes muscular discomfort but may also lead to headaches.
Reduce glare and brightness
Glare from the sunlight and overhead lighting makes it difficult to see your screen and leads to eyestrain. Since you probably don’t want to wear sunglasses indoors, try positioning your monitor away from or to the side of any windows. If necessary, shut the blinds to prevent glare. If possible, turn off any overhead lighting and use lights positioned to the side of your screen; indirect lighting is ideal because it won’t cause glare14.
You don’t have to stick with your device’s default display settings, either. For instance, set the brightness on your device so that it’s the same as your surroundings and doesn’t strain your vision. You can also increase the text size so you can read comfortably.