Digital eye strain has become increasingly common. Here's what's happening and how you can ease symptoms.
A few years ago, I thought I was going blind and made a beeline for an optometrist that was open on Saturday mornings. What brought me in? After lazily looking at my phone in the dark in bed moments after waking up—something I did daily—I glanced across the room and a big black circle that took about a minute to disappear clouded the vision in my left eye. If I closed my right eye, I could barely see. It was terrifying.
After visits to two optometrists who did a series of retinal imaging procedures and tests, they found everything to be "normal" with my eyes. The problem—which persists to this day—they hypothesized, was the result of spending the past decade (at least) squinting at my phone in the dark with my right eye shut. There have been a few other cases of this I've read about, and the culprit is that glaring screen we've all become so addicted to. While my case may be rare, the effects of screen time on the eyes has become a modern issue. Whether it involves a computer, smartphone or tablet, most people clock more than 11 hours per day in front of the screen.
While there are obvious irritations associated with spending so much time in front of a screen—growing restless, venturing down a social media rabbit hole or feeling physically inactive and sluggish—few of us actually think about the effect of screen time on the eyes. Dry eye is becoming one of the most common conditions seen and treated by optometrists due to increased screen time. In fact, Canadians may be experiencing screen-induced dry eye symptoms—things like burning, stinging, gritty, scratchy or uncomfortable eyes – without connecting the dots and realizing what's causing them.
"Digital eye strain and the associated visual symptoms are one of the most common complaints I now hear about from my patients," said Dr. Mandy Bains, a Toronto area-based optometrist. "We are still learning and trying to understand the science and true impact of digital devices on our eyes. However, we do know physical discomfort after long hours of screen time can lead to patients experiencing eye strain, dry eyes, blurry vision, headaches and neck and back pain."
While dye eye can't necessarily be cured, there are steps that anyone can take to ease their symptoms. "Optometrists can provide multiple solutions and treatments to help improve their symptoms of digital eye strain. The treatment options may include counselling, eye drops or specific lens options," said Bains. For those who already rely on glasses or contact lenses, Bains says that wearing the proper prescription in front of your device is the first step to preventing digital eyestrain. Though it may sound straightforward, most people who rely on glasses or contact lenses have been guilty of squinting through life for periods of time thanks to out-dated prescriptions—after all, new lenses don't exactly come cheap, especially if you're like me and need to have them specially compressed to avoid the dreaded "Coke bottle" effect. "You can further protect your eyes by using eyewear that help magnify, decrease glare or filter blue light that is emitted from our screens," says Bains. "Glasses and contacts may help improve symptoms, but they may not alleviate symptoms completely."
Other solutions, according to Bains, can be as simple as blinking more often and taking breaks from staring at the screen. "Our blink rate decreases when we are focused on our screen and this, in turn, leads to dry eyes," says Bains. She suggests practising the "20-20-20 rule," whereby you take breaks and look away from your screen every 20 minutes for a period of 20 seconds, and at an object that is at least 20 feet away. She also recommends positioning yourself at an arm's distance from your screen, increasing the text on your screen, and reducing the glare from your screen by adjusting overhead lighting and using screen filters. There are also products on the market that can help—for example, for quick relief at home, Alcon Canada's new Systane Complete, the first all-in-one drop to treat all types of dry eye.
Most obviously, another solution is to cut back on screen time altogether if you can, and enjoy living in—and seeing—the real world around us.