Tech & Work

Digital eye strain: Understanding the condition and how to fight it

Technology can be such a headache. We're not talking about bad software, we're talking about the damage blue light can do to your eyes from staring at screens all day.

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iStock/Zsolt Nyulaszi

Headaches. Blurred vision. Neck Pain.

It's just another Wednesday for the 90% of people who spend three hours or more working on a computer every day, and experience symptoms of Computer Vision Syndrome, or digital eye strain, according to Nick Feipel, O.D. of Busby Eye Care in Westfield, Indiana.

Instances of eye strain are on the rise.

"The awareness is increasing as more research is being done but there's still a lot of people who don't realize what's happening," Feipel said. "As soon as they're walking in the door, we have our staff trained to inquire about how many hours they're on the computer."

Ask Matthew Books, marketing director for American Car Craft, and he'll tell you his tally is 8 to 15 hours every day — or more.

"I work on everything from social media, to advertising to our e-commerce site itself. I also do all of our photography and video editing so that's even more time in front of a computer screen," he said. And that's just at work. "To make matters worse for my peepers, I'm also an avid gamer and reader, all online."

It's not an uncommon situation when so much of how people work and play involves a screen.

Jenifer Joy Madden, author of the book The Durable Human Manifesto writes about staying tuned in to the body's nature, including its limits.

"In these digital days, it's very important that we are aware of our bodies and minds in association with technology," she said. "We have to understand that since we didn't evolve with it, tech affects us in various and unforeseen ways. Our eyes are no exception."

One of those unforeseen ways, at least until more recently, has to do with blue light, which is emitted from electronic screens. Smartphones, computers, LED TVs, tablets — they all give off blue light.

At best, it sounds like something blinking on a printer. At worst, a sale at K-mart.

In reality, blue light is a high frequency light that can lead to long term problems like macular degeneration, Feipel said. It can cause cells in the eyes to die off at a faster rate.

And for younger children, the effects can be more serious. Feipel said humans lack a certain pigment in the eye that helps absorb and filter out blue light until roughly the age of 25.

Plus, a recent study from the American Optometric Association found that parents tend to underestimate the amount of time their kids spend with electronic devices.

Feipel said some studies suggest that kids shouldn't use technology before age 12.

For kids or adults these days, though, that's not really an option.

Preventing digital eye strain

So, about those headaches.

"I'm getting them more frequently, which has been a red flag that I'm probably spending too much time staring into my various displays," Books said.

He's right. There are several measures both professionals can take to mitigate the symptoms.

Feipel recommended the 20-20-20 rule. For every 20 minutes spent looking intently at a computer screen, take a break for 20 seconds and look at something 20 feet away. It relaxes the muscles within the eye. (Doogie Howser did this quite well at the end of his shows.)

Also, match the luminosity of the screen to the luminosity of the room. The American Optometric Association advises keep the computer monitor positioned just below eye level, and 20 to 28 inches from the eyes.

Increasing font size can also help.

Another good habit is one that might sound pretty obvious, though folks readily admit they forget: Blinking.

Don't forget to blink. It's possible to get so engrossed in work, that even the mostly involuntary action of blinking doesn't always happen. Not blinking means eyes aren't getting the lubrication they need to stay moist and healthy, Feipel said.

On the product side, there are a few ways various companies have devised to combat eye strain.

For one, there are amber or yellow-tinted glasses which block out blue light. Though, Feipel joked, good luck getting kids to wear those. For adults, the glasses may help, but it should be noted that filtering out all blue light is not a good option either, as humans need some blue light physiologically, and also to maintain proper color perception.

Another option relating to glasses, Feipel said, is the Crizal Prevencia, a clear lens coating for glasses that blocks 20% of blue light. It's something Feipel offers to patients.

There are also filters that go on top of smartphone or tablet screens, which block out bluelight. Several of these products are also marketed as sleep aid products. Harvard published findings that blue light can negatively affect sleep — blue light suppresses the body's ability to produce melatonin, the hormone that helps people fall asleep. Interfering with the body's circadian rhythm can have long term effects. They recommend dimming the light and if possible, avoiding screens for 2-3 hours before bed.

Following the 20-20-20 rule, there are apps like Rest (iOS) or EyeDefender (PC only) which let users set intervals at which to take breaks, and then issue reminders when it's time to step away from the computer for a few minutes.

Books knows he's got to take it easy now and then.

"I cope by maintaining a healthy relationship with my ophthalmologist and remembering to blink. For the days I don't remember the latter, eye drops," he said.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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