Today we are immersed in a virtual sea of technology and the devices needed to connect to it. The average household in Canada has multiple devices per person and statistics show that in millennial households there are on average over 4 devices per person. With this increase in digital technology, many individuals report suffering from physical discomfort associated with extended screen viewing. The collection of symptoms has become known as digital eye strain (DES).
DES is the temporary discomfort associated with extended use of digital devices exceeding two or more hours. Almost every modern device we use can be associated with this condition including televisions, desktop computers, laptop computers, tablet devices, smart phones, e-readers, and gaming systems. Nowadays it is common for people to use multiple devices at once or to switch back and forth almost effortlessly between multiple devices. This pattern of use exacerbates the problem, with symptoms and discomfort becoming amplified. DES is a chronic condition created over a few hours of use, and symptoms of DES include headaches, eye strain, back, neck and shoulder pain, eye irritation, blurred vision, double vision, excessive tearing or dry eyes, and uncontrolled and excessive blinking or squinting. It may be a bigger problem for people that wear prescription eyewear because of varying focal lengths and peripheral distortion effects, particularly when continually flipping back and forth between multiple devices.
A survey commissioned by the Alberta Association of Optometrists found that Albertans are big users of digital devices: Boomers (aged 55+) spend on average 8.5 hours per day using digital devices, Gen-Xers (aged 35-54) spend on average 11 hour per day using digital devices, and Millennials (aged 18-34) spend on average 12.5 hours per day using digital devices. Repeating these behaviours day-after-day, and week-after-week may speed up onset of the condition and worsen the symptoms.
Digital devices often feature varied fonts, print sizes, lighting levels, and often are made up of highly pixelated images that cause our eyes to have to strain to focus, and read or resolve the images. People may also use the devices improperly holding them too close, too far away, or at the wrong angle. Use of multiple devices exacerbates the problem because the print sizes, font sizes, lighting levels, and pixilation may be different between the devices requiring our eyes to repeatedly re-adjust with each transition from device to device to device. A confounding risk factor for the development of DES is blue-light. Blue-light is towards the UV-end of the visible light spectrum and this high energy, shorter wavelength light increases eye strain, more so than mid-spectrum light and may also be associated with other chronic vision problems such as cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.
Awareness is a key to reducing digital eyestrain. Reducing the number of use periods on devices and the length of each period reduces risk. Pay attention to the signs and symptoms of DES. If you feel fatigued or notice eye irritation, act to reduce the risk. Eyewear is available with lenses featuring digital eye strain-reducing capabilities. These lenses help to filter out the high energy visible (HEV) light reducing DES onset.
There are other things you can do to reduce DES including:
- whenever possible use only one device at a time;
- ensure the lens or screen of the device is clean to reduce distortion and differential glare;
- increase text size and use consistent fonts when possible;
- reduce back lighting and overhead lighting to minimize reflective glare from the screen;
- set the screen resolution, contrast and brightness adjustment to maximize comfort;
- follow the 20:20:20 suggestion – every 20 minutes take a break from your device for 20-seconds by looking away from the screen and towards something about 20 feet away; and
- blink more often!
In addition, if using a smart phone try and set the viewing angle to be slightly below eye level, and keep the device held at a comfortable distance from eyes. If using a computer make sure the chair supports the spine and keeps your body upright; set your chair height so your feet are flat on the floor; adjust the viewing distance to be approximately arms length away from the screen; and keep the top of the monitor level with your eyes and directly in front of you without any tilt.
What is almost guaranteed is that the use of digital devices will continue to increase. If you suffer symptoms of DES and these symptoms continue you may need additional help. See a doctor of optometry who can help. Optometrists can complete a thorough exam and advise you if you are suffering from digital eye strain, or if your ocular discomfort is the result of a more serious vision or health problem. Every day additional applications find there way into our lives. With each new application, the risk of DES increases and we need to be aware and develop good habits and a strategy to reduce the risk.
Glyn Jones is a consulting occupational health and safety professional with 30 years of experience. He is a regular safety conference speaker in Canada and he provides program design and instructional support to the University of New Brunswick’s fully online OHS Certificate and Diploma programs.