How to try to keep your eyes safe with increased screen time amid coronavirus outbreak

Check in on your eye health with these ophthalmologists tips

March 31, 2020, 4:19 AM

With more Americans not going to the office in an attempt to slow the spread of novel coronavirus in the United States, working from home has become a regular routine.

As a result many people have increased the amount of time spent staring at their screens -- including additional videoconferencing.

ABC News spoke with one of the country's leading ophthalmologists to better understand how this could potentially impact our long-term eye health and what we can do to ensure our vision does not suffer daily as a result.

PHOTO: A woman uses a laptop computer.
A woman uses a laptop computer.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

Dr. Rob J. Weinstock, director of cataract and refractive surgery at the Eye Institute of West Florida and member of the Eyesafe Vision Health Advisory Board, an international group of leading eye doctors focused on the impacts of technology on consumer eye-care, shared his tips, signs of eye strain and the impacts of blue light.

"All this increased time in front of phones, laptops, monitors and TVs is leading to increased exposure to harmful high-energy blue light waves," Dr. Weinstock said. "It's well known that over exposure to blue light suppresses melatonin release by the brain which disrupts normal sleep patterns. Poor sleep in all age groups is known to be a factor in diseases such as diabetes, heart disease as well psychological conditions such as depression and attention deficit disorder (ADD.)"

How do we know if our eyes are strained?

Weinstock said "tired, burning, itching, blurry, or dry eyes after prolonged screen time" are all symptoms that could indicate a person has "overdone it."

"These feelings can be accompanied by headaches, sore neck and back and other symptoms such as sensitivity to light and difficulty concentrating -- these are all signs of eye strain," he continued.

If you have already sensed eye strain, Weinstock warned, "you have already been exposed to too much blue light."

"We are just beginning to understand all the long-term impacts of over-exposure to high energy blue light," he added. "It’s really a cascading of events which has a direct impact on productivity."

What best practices can people implement for prolonged screen time?

"For the majority of Americans who are exposed to an average 7,8, 9, or even more hours per day looking at different types of displays, you definitely want to be proactive about protecting your eyes from harmful blue light," Weinstock said.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that people take a 20-second break for every 20 minutes of screen time.

"I know it’s not easy to just set the phone down or turn the TV off -- as many of us are working from home that’s just not feasible -- which is why I recommend investing in solutions can help filter out harmful blue light as opposed to solutions that encourage you to cut down on screen time," he explained.

Limiting screen time, switching to products that limit blue light at the source, after-market products that filter blue light, or just turning down the brightness of displays can all help people who use screens for prolonged periods, according to Weinstock.

"I recommend solutions that block the most harmful portions blue light, without affecting the overall color and appearance," he said. Light in general causes a type of damage to the retina called phototoxicity and decreases the eye’s response to light. The retina receives light and converts it into neural signals it send to the brain for visual recognition. The most harmful aspect of visible light is the blue wavelength.

Things like protective protective covers for phones and tablets can block some harmful portions of blue light, he added.

Do blue light blocking glasses help?

Weinstock said that blue light-blocking glasses have been around for a while, but "it’s hard to know what you are getting, as there are no universal established standards for low blue light in eyewear." "It’s coming, but for now I certainly recommend consulting an eyecare specialist before making a purchase," he said.

Top tips to prevent and reduce digital eye strain

The American Academy of Ophthalmologists suggests the following tips to help reduce eye strain related to computer and digital device use.

1. Blink! Humans normally blink about 15 times in one minute. However, studies show that we only blink about 5 to 7 times in a minute while using computers and other digital screen devices. Blinking is the eye’s way of getting the moisture it needs on its surface.

Make a conscious effort to blink as often as possible. This keeps the surface of your eyes from drying out. You might even want to put a sticky note on your computer screen reminding you to blink often!

2. Lube ‘em up. Use artificial tears to refresh your eyes when they feel dry. If you are often in a dry, warm room, consider using a humidifier to add moisture to the air.

3. Follow the “20-20-20” Rule. Take regular breaks using the “20-20-20” rule: every 20 minutes, shift your eyes to look at an object at least 20 feet away, for at least 20 seconds.

4. Use computer eyeglasses. If you work on a computer for many hours at a time, you might find that using computer eyeglasses reduces eye strain. These prescription glasses allow you to focus your eyes specifically at computer screen distance (intermediate distance, which is about 20-26 inches away from your face). Some of these glasses have multi-focal lenses to help you quickly shift your focus between close, intermediate and far distances. Be aware that computer glasses for reducing eye strain are not the same as “blue light blocking” glasses.

5. Adjust brightness and contrast. If your screen glows brighter than your surroundings, your eyes have to work harder to see. Adjust your screen brightness to match the level of light around you. Also, try increasing the contrast on your screen to reduce eye strain.

6. Reduce the glare. The screens on today’s digital devices often have a lot of glare. Try using a matte screen filter to cut glare. Check with your computer store or cell phone store to see what they can provide.

7. Adjust your position at the computer. When using a computer, you should be sitting about 25 inches (right about at arm's length) from the screen. Also, position the screen so your eye gazes slightly downward, not straight ahead or up.

Time limits for adolescents

Weinstock said that adolescents are the most susceptible population to eye strain, particularly young children, who he said "are still developing and thus highly susceptible to high energy blue light."

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that parents of children ages 2 to 5 years should limit screen use to 1 hour per day. Young kids also tend to hold screens closer to their eyes which greatly exacerbates the problem. Also, adults with pre-existing conditions such as dry eye should be careful about how much blue light they are exposed to. With many school-age children moving to online education, it will be impossible to limit screen time for kids.

According to a study by the AAO, evidence showed that "at least part of the worldwide increase in nearsightedness has to do with near work activities," meaning an activity that puts a person in close proximity to a device be it a screen or a book.

While that evidence cited both screens and traditional books, it also showed that spending time outdoors could help slow the progression of nearsightedness.

"It remains unclear whether the rise in nearsightedness is due to focusing on phones all the time, or to light interacting with our circadian rhythms to influence eye growth, or none of the above," the AAO stated.

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