Excessive digital screen time is detrimental to eye health and can eventually lead to computer screen syndrome. Are you or your kids at risk?
Smartphones, tablets, laptops, computers—the digital world has taken over our lives. In this technology age, we all, adults and children alike, spend a majority of our days and nights staring at digital screens. And our eyes are paying the price. Say hello to CVS. And, no, we’re not talking about the major drugstore chain.
Computer vision syndrome is a term used to describe eye health issues caused by prolonged, uninterrupted viewing of digital screens. The resulting eye problems include blurred/double vision, burning, itching, eye twitching, redness, eyestrain and dry eyes. According to a recent survey by The Vision Council, at least 65 percent of Americans of all ages reported experiencing CVS symptoms. And those who spend two or more continuous hours using a digital screen device are at the greatest risk of CVS, according to the American Optometric Association.
Bottom line is that viewing a digital screen makes the eyes work harder and differently than reading a good, old-fashioned printed page. Electronic characters are made up of pixels and aren’t as sharply defined as words, which tend to have fixed edges. Add in varying levels of background contrast, glare, viewing distance and angles on a digital screen and the eyes’ workload amps up. The first casualty is usually focus. To maintain focus, the eyes repeatedly attempt to rest by switching between the screen and a relaxation point to an area behind the screen. And the closer the eyes are to a digital screen, the harder they have to work to maintain focus.
“Viewing digital screens for extended periods of time, even as short as an hour stretch, definitely challenges the eyes,” says Ocala Eye ophthalmologist Dr. Vishwanath Srinagesh, who goes by Dr. Vish. “All that refocusing without resting causes us to blink less than usual, up to 60 percent less. And this leads to dry eyes, which is the top symptom of CVS.”
According to Dr. Vish, tears play a vital role in our eye health, providing key nutrient-rich moisture. Without it, our eyes become red, irritated and fatigued.
Dr. Vish adds, “Untreated dry eye can increase the risk of permanent damage to the front of the eye, known as ocular surface disease.”
“The usual first treatment for dry eyes is artificial tears,” says Dr. Vish, who has authored several studies investigating dry-eye treatments. “But each patient is different, and another treatment might provide them with better results. That’s why an individualized evaluation is important.”
Prolonged screen time can also exacerbate minor vision problems. Additionally, prescription eyeglasses or contact lenses may not be adequate for viewing a digital screen for an extended time.
“Those who wear prescription eye wear should consult with their eye care provider,” says Dr. Vish. “There are special lens designs, lens powers, tints or coatings that could make viewing digital screens more comfortable.”
According to a recent survey by The Vision Council, 29 percent of American children 7 through 12 years old reported spending an average of more than 90 minutes a day texting on their cell phones. Toss in playing video games and watching TV shows on their devices and the statistics would surely rise. All this screen time takes its toll on still-developing young eyes.
“I’m definitely seeing more young patients with dry eyes, some as young as 12,” says Dr. Vish.
Heavy screen time may also be putting children at risk for early myopia or nearsightedness. A recent National Eye Institute study found that the prevalence of myopia had increased from 25 percent to 41 percent over the past 30 years and might be attributable to increased digital use beginning at an early age. The same study also found that overexposure to a digital screen’s blue light might also increase a child’s risk of developing macular degeneration later in life. Macular degeneration, typically seen in older adults, is the leading cause of vision loss.
“There is still ongoing research, but the rise in myopia and macular degeneration may be because children are spending so much time being exposed to blue light and less time in natural sunlight,” says Dr. Vish. “Getting adequate natural light is very important for young developing eyes.”
To reduce CVS risks, parents should limit the amount of a child’s screen time on a daily basis. It is also very important to have a child’s vision checked regularly, including near-point reading and distance testing. If a child is already wearing prescription eye glasses, blue light-blocking lenses might be an option to consider.
Tips to Prevent CVS
20-20-20 rule: To reduce focusing fatigue, the American Optometric Association recommends looking away from a digital screen at least every 20 minutes to stare at a distant object at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
20-10-15 repeat: At least every 20 minutes, look away and gaze at a faraway object for 10 to 15 seconds, and then look at something up close for 10 to 15 seconds. Repeat this 10 times.
Blink more often: Every 20 minutes, blink 10 times by fully closing your eyes as if falling asleep very slowly to re-moisten your eyes. Also check with your eye doctor about artificial tear drops.
Minimize glare: To reduce eye strain, consider adding or buying devices with anti-glare screens. If you wear eyeglasses, talk to your eye care professional about lenses with an anti-reflective coating. When looking at digital devices, reduce interior lighting by using lower intensity bulbs.
Consider computer glasses: Talk to your eye doctor about modifying your prescription eyeglasses or contacts to customized computer eyeglasses. This may also be a good option for those who wear bifocals or progressive lenses.
Get an annual comprehensive eye exam: Speak with your eye care specialist about how much time you spend viewing digital screens so this can be taken into account for proper vision testing.
Sources: aoa.org, allaboutvision.com, thevisioncouncil.com, mayoclinic.org, webmd.com
Common Ailments at a Glance
Cataracts: The lens of the eyes is made mostly of water and protein, and when changes occur in that substance, a cloudy or opaque area develops, aka a cataract. Cataracts usually develop in both eyes, but one can be worse than the other. As the cataract worsens, vision issues increase. Cataracts most often develop in people over 55 but can occasionally occur in young children and infants. Treatment depends on the level of vision impairment, ranging from changing eyeglass prescription to cataract surgery. According to the American Optometric Association, approximately 90 percent of patients report better vision after cataract surgery.
Glaucoma: In the most common form of glaucoma, primary open-angle glaucoma, the fluid pressure inside the eye increases. This may result in progressive damage to the optic nerve and nerve fibers, leading to vision loss and even blindness. Glaucoma is the second-leading cause of blindness in the United States and occurs most often in those over 40, but a form of infant glaucoma does also exist. Once diagnosed, glaucoma can be treated with medication or surgery.
Macular degeneration: Age-related macular degeneration causes the loss of central vision due to changes in the macula of the eye, which is a small portion of the retina located on the inside back layer of the eye. The dry (atrophic) form is the most common, and there is no treatment. The wet (exudative) form is less common and may respond to laser procedures and medication injections, if diagnosed early. AMD is the leading cause of severe vision loss in adults over 40.
Sources: aoa.org, webmd.com
LASIK, or laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis, is the most commonly performed laser eye surgery to treat myopia (near-sightedness), hyperopia (farsightedness) and astigmatism (imperfection in the curvature of the cornea). Considered a refractive surgery, LASIK reshapes the cornea of the eye, which allows light entering the eye to be properly focused on the retina for clearer vision.
Requiring only topical anesthetic drops, the procedure is typically pain-free and usually takes about 10 minutes per eye. No stitches or bandages are required following the surgery. Generally, you will return for a visit to your eye doctor or surgeon the next day for evaluation. Although considered a safe surgery, complications can include eye infections. Some patients may also experience night glare, seeing halos or starbursts when viewing lights while driving at night.
Recovery time to stabilize your vision can take a few days to several weeks, but improved vision without eyeglasses or contact lenses can usually be seen within 24 hours. Some patients may still need to wear eyeglasses or contacts, but their prescription level will typically be much lower than prior to the surgery. Reading glasses may also be needed once a patient reaches their 40s, due to age-related loss of near vision.
The cost of LASIK can range from $1,500 to $2,500 per eye.
Sources: allaboutvision.com, mayoclinic.org
Prescription contact lenses improve vision from conditions such as nearsightedness, farsightedness, astigmatism and presbyopia. Contact lens options include:
Daily wear: These lenses are removed nightly and thrown away prior to sleeping. This minimizes any risk of eye infection and eliminates the need for cleaning and storing.
Disposable wear: Taken out every night, this type is cleaned and stored for reuse. They are replaced on a daily, weekly, bi-weekly or monthly basis as prescribed by your eye doctor. They are often recommended for people with allergies and who tend to form deposits on lenses.
Extended wear: These are usually worn overnight but removed weekly for thorough cleaning and disinfection. A patient interested in this type of contact lens must be fully evaluated while wearing the lenses first during daytime only use before a gradual extended wear time to overnight. Sleeping with contact lenses does increase the risk of eye infections, extreme eye pain and possible permanent vision loss versus those who do not wear lenses overnight. More frequent follow-up visits may be necessary for those who choose to wear overnight contact lenses.
Sources: aoa.org, allaboutvision.com, aao.org