We’ve all been there the last month or two – the once-helpful weekly screen time report pops up on your phone, providing an all-too-real reminder that your screen time usage is up across the board. For years we’ve been hearing about the benefits of reducing screen time, why a digital detox would do us all some good, and why we should make the effort to balance our digital and analog worlds.

Now that everything has gone online during the pandemic, the increase in screen time is unavoidable. Work calls and in-person meetings have moved online to Zoom and Skype, social hours and family gatherings occur on Houseparty, and dining room tables are digitally connected home offices and schools.

Fortunately, there are ways to identify and manage the hidden consequences of the move to a more virtual world.

How screen time impacts our eyes

The impact of increased time in front of electronics is not a new phenomenon; life was headed this direction well before the current shift to self-isolation and social distancing. As far back as the early 2000s, it was estimated the average American adult spent at least seven hours a day on electronic devices.

Furthermore, it has been reported that 90 percent of U.S. adults who use a computer more than three hours a day will experience various vision-related problems known collectively as Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS).1 The risk continues to increase when the time exceeds four hours.2

 Common Symptoms of CVS:

Common Causes of CVS:

Eyestrain

Poor lighting

Headaches

Screen glare

Fatigue

Infrequent blinking

Blurred vision

Extended screen time between breaks 

Dry eyes

Improper viewing distances

Eye twitch 

Improper font size 

Neck and shoulder pain

Poor seating posture

Postural problems

Uncorrected vision problems

Your eyes may be working overtime

Although you might not realize it, your eyes contain six muscles that control function and movement. And just like other muscles, eye muscles are subject to fatigue and injury in situations that promote overuse and fatigue.

Computer work often puts us in positions and postures that promote fatigue and injuries of the neck, shoulders, and upper back, in addition to the strain on the muscles involved in eye function.

Since the early 2000s, evidence suggests that musculoskeletal impairments account for more than half of reported workplace injuries that lead to decreased productivity and increased work loss.3,4 Proper attention to posture, monitor placement, and break time can minimize strain on the eyes and upper body muscles.

The dark side of blue light 

When discussing screen time and health, we often hear about blue light, but what exactly is it, and why should we care? Outside of the rare glimpse of a rainbow, we often forget that what we see as light is a combination of colored rays with differing energies and wavelengths.

Toward the end of the visual color spectrum is blue light – it has the shortest wavelength and highest energy. Blue light accounts for approximately one-third of visible light. Although blue light is essential for many reasons, too much exposure can have some less than ideal downstream effects.

Our eyes simply aren’t built to block blue light; in fact, almost all blue light reaches the back of the eye where the retina is. The retina controls the ability to read, recognize, and react to visual input that is sensitive to blue light. Too much blue light can damage retina cells and cause changes to the eye that can eventually become permanent.

In addition to physically damaging the eye, the high energy nature of blue light is less focused than other forms of light and requires the eye to work harder to focus, which contributes to additional strain.

What we ask our eyes to do while awake impacts our ability to close and rest them at night. Exposure of blue light from handheld devices or computers for as few as two hours is linked to a 22-percent reduction in the sleep hormone melatonin,5 and this impact on sleep increases the closer the exposure is to bedtime.

Melatonin, which regulates our sleep-wake cycle, is triggered by darkness. Blue light from electronic devices alters the natural release of melatonin, causing disruptions in regular sleep patterns.  

Remember to blink

When studying jobs that require significant screen time, researchers observed a peculiar occurrence; workers didn’t blink enough. They found that when viewing a computer screen, employees blinked 3-10 times a minute, compared to 18-22 blinks per minute when reading a book.6-8

This decreased blink rate leads to dry eyes, which can cause discomfort and promote eye fatigue. As font size decreases, the cognitive demand of a task increases, or squinting occurs and blink rate falls.9,10

Tips and techniques to manage increased screen time11-14

1. Give it a break

Create a routine that promotes rest and relaxation for your eyes.

Good: 20/20/20 rule – every 20 minutes, stop looking at your screen for 20 seconds and look at something 20 feet away to give your eyes a break.

Better: An extra 20 – while following the 20/20/20 rule, intentionally blink 20 times.

Best: Take a lap – every 20 minutes, get up, move around, and stretch to loosen the muscles of your upper body.

2. Maximize your workspace

Create the optimal set-up to minimize eye strain:

  • Keep your monitor 20-24 inches from your eyes.
  • Keep your monitor at a height that allows the center of the screen to be just slightly below your eyes to allow your head and neck to be in a comfortable posture.
  • Add a second monitor or a stand to prevent you from repeatedly looking down for information and back up to your screen.
  • Minimize glare and blue light by adjusting the contrast of the computer or smartphone or use software to do it automatically.
  • Keep overhead lighting no brighter than your computer screen and, if possible, work in a room with darker walls and less lighting.

3. Get offline – increase your analog activities

Although you might be unable to change the amount of time spent in front of a screen during work hours, make an effort to decrease screen time the rest of the day.

Get outside – In addition to the benefits of physical activity on heart health and immune function, you can get a large portion of your vitamin D, which plays a major role in supporting immune function, from the sun. You can’t get sunlight from a screen.

Alternate entertainment – Read a book, listen to an audio book or podcast, break out a board game – there are endless sources of entertainment beyond Netflix and Hulu.

Start a hobby – We all have that one or two things we tell ourselves we are going to tackle – so learn a new language, start a journal, improve your culinary skills, learn to play an instrument. What better time than now to start a new hobby or establish a new routine?

4. Other quarantine care tips

Taking care to support eye health and manage screen time is one way to manage the impact of social distancing. For more information on health and wellness during these times visit Thorne’s COVID resources, including:

We can also learn from Professional Athletes and Olympians about how they are managing their health during  quarantine.


References

  1. Randolph S. Computer vision syndrome. Workplace Health Saf 2017;65(7):328.
  2. Rossignol A, Morse E, Summers V, Pagnotto L. Video display terminal use and reported health symptoms among Massachusetts clerical workers. J Occup Med 1987;29(2):112-118.
  3. Bohr P. Efficacy of office ergonomics education. J Occup Rehabil 2000;10(4):243-255. 
  4. Chindlea G. About a healthy workstation. Ann Oradea U Fasc Manage Techno-log Engin 2008;7:1998-2005.
  5. Wood B, Rea M, Plitnick B, Figueiro M. Light level and duration of exposure determine the impact of self-luminous tablets on melatonin suppression. Appl Ergon 2013;44(2):237-240.
  6. Cardona G, García C, Serés C, et al. Blink rate, blink amplitude, and tear film integrity during dynamic visual display terminal tasks. Curr Eye Res 2011;36(3):190-197.
  7. Tsubota K, Nakamori K. Dry eyes and video display terminals. N Engl J Med 1993;328(8):584.
  8. Patel S, Henderson R, Bradley L, et al. Effect of visual display unit use on blink rate and tear stability. Optom Vis Sci 1991;68(11):888-892.
  9. Himebaugh N, Begley C, Bradley A, Wilkinson J. Blinking and tear break-up during four visual tasks. Optom Vis Sci 2009;86(2):E106-E114.
  10. Gowrisankaran S, Sheedy J, Hayes J. Eyelid squint response to asthenopia-inducing conditions. Optom Vis Sci 2007;84(7):611-619.
  11. Wahlström J. Ergonomics, musculoskeletal disorders and computer work. Occup Med 2005;55(3):168-176.
  12. Rosenfield M. Computer vision syndrome: a review of ocular causes and potential treatments. Ophthalmic Physiol Opt 2011;31(5):502-515.
  13. Sheppard A, Wolffsohn J. Digital eye strain: prevalence, measurement and amelioration. BMJ Open Ophthalmol 2018;3(1):e000146.
  14. Screen time: how much is too much? Nature 2019;565(7739):265-266.