How did our society function before the smartphone? This small electronic device has such power over us that it commands our attention at every moment. According to a survey by Deloitte, Americans collectively check their phones over 8 billion times per day. On average, we also spend about five hours daily browsing the internet and using apps. When you add all this screen time to a full day’s work in front of a computer, it is not difficult to conclude that we are addicted to technology.
All these hours gazing at computer monitors and peering into cell phone screens is taking its toll on our vision. To understand how electronics can affect our vision, we need to go back to middle school physical science and the electromagnetic spectrum. To better explain these concepts, we decided to ask some of the Your Sight Matters eye experts.
Dr. Timothy Ehlen of Minneapolis Eye Center is a comprehensive ophthalmologist who specializes in refractive surgery. He explains, “We as humans can only see a small percentage of the electromagnetic spectrum called visible light. These wavelengths are between about 390 nanometers (nm) to 700 nm. Smartphones, tablets and computer screens emit blue light, which has a wavelength of 380 nm to 500 nm. These short, high-energy waves can cause anything from eye discomfort to retinal damage.” Dr. Ehlen says that blue light creates a glaring effect on the eyes that can lead to symptoms like dry eye, blurred vision, headaches, nearsightedness, and eye fatigue. This condition is commonly called digital eye strain.
The symptoms of digital eye strain are usually temporary, but long-term exposure to blue light can be quite serious. Dr. Jeff Taylor, of The Ophthalmology Group, LLP in Paducah, Ky., says, “Prolonged exposure to blue light can actually contribute to photochemical damage, which can potentially harm your retinal cells and make you susceptible to conditions like age-related macular degeneration.” The age group that is the most at-risk is children. Dr. Taylor points out that children are still learning self-control and self-monitoring. Playing apps and games and surfing the internet is fun, and most children lack the self-control to create limits for themselves. “I encourage parents to talk with their kids about setting limits for screen time,” Dr. Taylor shared. “Sometimes, the best way to enforce those limits is for the parents to model good behavior for the children.”
Finding a balance between appropriate use of electronics and overuse of our devices is a continual challenge in the digital age. We need electronics to accomplish our daily tasks and stay in communication with those around us, but we also need to set boundaries for the sake of our eye health. Dr. David P. Rowell of Salem Laser and Surgery Center in Salem, Ore., says that he sees patients regularly who are not aware of blue light or how it affects our eyes. “Digital eye strain is still a relatively new topic in the medical field and there is much more to be learned. As ophthalmologists, we look to ongoing research to learn about blue light and will determine if it is necessary for our patients to protect their eyes from the digital eye strain and long-term damage due to overexposure.”
Dr. Rowell also points out that blue light can be responsible for sleeplessness and insomnia. “Recent studies show that blue light decreases melatonin levels, the hormone responsible for helping us fall asleep,” he explains. “I tell my patients that watching TV before bed or reading a book on a Kindle may make it more difficult to fall asleep. Ideally, we should turn off all screens about two hours before bed time.”
Here are some ways to protect your vision and safeguard your eyes from overexposure to blue light:
- Set limits on screen time. Be conscious of when you are using your devices for work and when you are using them for leisure.
- Turn off all electronic devices at least two hours before bed time.
- Increase your blink rate. A normal blink rate is 15 times per minute, but this rate is decreased by 50 percent when we are using digital devices. Remind yourself to blink, and even write a reminder on a post-it note and put it by your computer.
- Take regular breaks. Implement a system where you take regular breaks about every 20 minutes or so. This is known as the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes, look at something at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds.
- Talk to your children about how electronics affect their vision. As you set your own limits for screen time and follow them, you are modeling good self-control to your children. Help create limits for them as well, and enforce those limits.
- Visit your eye doctor regularly. Nothing can substitute for a comprehensive eye exam to evaluate your eye health.