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Is “Screen Time” Wearing Out Your Vision?

Expert Chats

Many of us who work in offices have had days where we can’t seem to get away from a screen — sitting at our desks glued to a computer, taking notes on a laptop in meetings and even reading emails while walking down hallways.

After hours upon hours of screen time, it’s not uncommon to experience blurry vision or an itchy, scratchy sensation in our eyes, and ophthalmologists are seeing more and more patients with these symptoms. As our lives become progressively more digital, is there any cause for concern?

We asked Dr. Matthew Gardiner, ophthalmologist and Director of Emergency Eye Services at Mass. Eye and Ear, for his take on “digital eye strain.”

A variant of dry eye disease

Our biggest take away? It’s less about the actual screen, and more about the prolonged amount of time we’re spending focused on something up close.

“What we’re talking about is really a variant of dry eye disease,” he said. “Anytime you’re really focused on something — whether it’s a computer screen or a book — you tend to blink less, and your eyes become dry.”

Blinking — which we tend to do about half as frequently when we’re concentrating on something — is important because it re-establishes the tear film on the eye. Some of the tears we make drain into the corner of the eye, and others simply evaporate away. A healthy tear film is important not only for making us feel comfortable, but also for maintaining a refractive surface on the eye.

Dr. Gardiner was quick to point out that our tendency to sit for long periods of time may be a top contributor to digital eye strain.

“It used to be that, years ago, when you were sitting at a desk, you’d be talking on the phone and getting up to ask someone down the hall a question,” he said. “But now that our interactions are more likely by email, we tend to just sit and stare for 8 hours at a time.”

If you’re wondering whether there is anything about the digital screens themselves that may be harmful for the eyes…rest easy (though, do remember that blue light has been shown to disrupt sleep).

“In theory, there’s no difference between a screen and print. It’s not like there is some sort of radiation coming from the screen – there’s nothing toxic being emitted,” Dr. Gardiner said. “There’s just something about that activity that makes people want to stare intently without ever looking away.”

Giving our eyes a break in an increasingly digital world

But even though there’s little cause for concern about long-term damage to the eyes, Dr. Gardiner and his colleagues in ophthalmology clinics have noticed an escalation in dry eye symptoms in the advent of smart phones, tablets and our increasingly digital work and personal lives.

So, what can you do about it?

“Give your eyes a break,” Dr. Gardiner said. “Every 15 minutes, look away from the screen, look out the window, stand up and stretch, walk down the hallway. Don’t just sit there in a fixed position and keep staring and staring.

“Putting in artificial tears can also help – those are over the counter, you can keep them on your desk and put them in multiple times (up to 6x) throughout the day. Putting in a drop before you sit down to work, a drop later on in the day, and at the end of the day, just to make sure that your eyes are well lubricated.

“You can also consciously try to blink more often. Letting it happen involuntarily is probably not going to be enough.”

And if your eyes are still dry…

And if you’re still having symptoms, tear duct plugs — tiny silicone plugs placed in the office will allow the tears you naturally make to persist — there also are some prescription eye drops that can increase your tear production.

“Think of the eye as a sink. You have tears coming in through the faucet of the sink and there’s a drain. If the eye is dry, you can make it better by turning up the faucet or plugging the drain. So, to turn up the faucet, we have medicines that increase tear production, or you can add moisture with artificial tears. So how do we plug the drain? We have ducts in our lower and upper lids into which the tears flow after they are produced, and that then goes down into your nose and into the back of your throat. This is why, when you cry, your nose runs. So if we put plugs in those ducts, tears will build up because there’s no place for them to go. Patients usually don’t feel them or see them and relief usually comes within a day or so. If the tearing is too profuse, we can easily take them out in the office, too”

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